Truancy in California affects more than just attendance at schools

The idea of kids skipping class may conjure up images of harmlessly hanging out on the grass under sunny skies. But the truth is, chronically truant students are at greater risk of having a dark future — ending up as high school dropouts or being the victims or perpetrators of crimes.

As part of her long-running battle against truancy, California Attorney General Kamala Harris last week released an in-depth report about the state of school attendance for elementary school children.

When Harris was San Francisco’s district attorney, she pushed for anti-truancy measures that were credited with slashing the rates of chronic truants. She continued to push for statewide measures, including a bill that allows California officials to charge parents of chronically truant students with misdemeanors.

The Attorney General’s Office report “In School + On Track” is a sobering look at truancy and absenteeism in the state, and it hopefully will spur more action to help young children obtain the education they deserve.

To be clear, Harris is not talking about a child missing a few classes each year without a valid reason. The definition of chronic truancy and absence is a student missing at least 10 percent of the school year. While any truancy is disruptive to the learning environment, students chronically missing class can lead to larger impacts for them, their school system and the economy.

Nearly 1 million elementary students are truant each year, according to the report. Last year, more than 250,000 elementary students missed more than 10 percent of the school year. In direct impacts alone, that is $1.4 billion that schools lose in funding from money that is tied to attendance.

But the costs run deeper. When elementary students – those in kindergarten through sixth grade – are habitually truant, they are more likely to drop out before graduating from high school. Those same kids are also more likely than their peers to be the victims or perpetrators of crimes.

The reasons behind truancy go beyond just the kids, since a kindergartner’s attendance has everything to do with his or her parent or parents’ behavior — not their own. School districts across the state need to step up and be more aggressive about truancy.

In San Francisco, current District Attorney George Gascón has continued the programs started by Harris, and in some instances has expanded them. The San Francisco Unified School District still has a truancy rate among its elementary students of 23 percent.

Being lax about kids missing school is robbing them of their future and placing a later burden on society of either an undereducated populace or the price of a busier criminal justice system. According to the report, when incarceration, lost productivity and tax revenues are all figured in, drop-outs cost California an estimated $46.4 billion each year.

Harris’ stark report is a start, and she is right to keep this issue in the spotlight. She makes strong recommendations, such as tracking attendance in real time so that schools can intervene early – before one absence turn into more. Now education leaders statewide need to take notice and get to work fixing the problem.

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