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Milking the Truancy Cow for Cash


Diane Tran is a 17-year-old honor student who was jailed for truancy in Texas. When a tearful Tran gave an interview for a local television station, the story went viral. Her parents had recently divorced, leaving Tran to support herself and her siblings by working two jobs in addition to attending school. Fury was unleashed on the truancy court justice, Lanny Moriarty, who made an example of Tran by fining her $100 and imprisoning her for 24 hours. Deluged with criticism and media blare, Moriarty quickly vacated the conviction.

Anyone who was shocked by Tran’s treatment has not been paying attention. Truancy has been criminalized for more than a decade now, and the situation will worsen over the next few years.

A standard legal definition of truancy is provided by A Quick Guide to Truancy Prosecution, issued by the Los Angeles County Education Coordinating Council. The Guide states,

Any pupil subject to compulsory full-time education who is absent from school without valid excuse three full-time days in one school year or tardy or absent for more than any 30-minute period during the school day without a valid excuse on three occasions in one school year, or any combination thereof, is a truant.

After going through a warning process, chronic truants are often referred to a truancy court. In essence, it is a specialized family court in which parents and their truant children must explain themselves to a judge. Although such courts are relatively new, they have spread quickly.

As in other family courts, the truancy judge exercises a great deal of discretion. One judge in Pennsylvania bragged of being harsh with parents and children. Of parents who did not attend court-ordered guidance classes, he declared, “Bam! I slam them in jail.”

Officials who pursue truants argue that it is “for the children’s good.” They point first to the alleged benefits of a public-school education. Furthermore, truancy, they say, is a “gateway crime” that leads to more serious ones, and so it puts children on the fast track from public school to prison.

The real motive for the war on truancy, however, is money. Public schools receive funding for every child who attends at least 60 percent of the school day; for example, the school district of Berkeley, California, is reported to receive $35 per child a day in state funding. Federal programs and other sources of funding also use attendance rates to allocate money to districts. The U.S. Department of Education offers a general sense of where the funding comes from:

In the 2004-05 school year, 83 cents out of every dollar spent on education is estimated to come from the state and local levels (45.6 percent from state funds and 37.1 percent from local governments). The federal government’s share is 8.3 percent. The remaining 8.9 percent is from private sources, primarily for private schools.]

It is difficult to find reliable data on how much schools spend to educate a child for one school year (approximately 180 days). In a 2010 Cato Institute policy report, “They Spend WHAT? The Real Cost of Public Schools,” Adam Schaeffer writes,

Although public schools are usually the biggest item in state and local budgets, spending figures provided by public-school officials and reported in the media often leave out major costs of education and thus understate what is actually spent.

To document the phenomenon, this paper reviews district budgets and state records for the nation’s five largest metro areas and the District of Columbia. It reveals that, on average, per-pupil spending in these areas is 44 percent higher than officially reported.

 Real spending per pupil ranges from a low of nearly $12,000 in the Phoenix area schools to a high of nearly $27,000 in the New York metro area.

The financial stakes are high, with the flow of money into school coffers hinging on student attendance. That establishes precisely the wrong incentive. When a government agency is paid for the number of people it processes, it has a strong incentive to force as many people as possible to use its “service.” Attendance becomes mandatory, and the “right” to an education becomes a legal requirement.

Now public schools are taking the next step to ensure that absenteeism does not deny them tax dollars. If the absence is chronic, officials are going after the parents with the threat of fines and jail time. The threat is not an empty one.

In a 2008 San Francisco Examiner article, “Why Prosecute Parents of Chronically Truant Students?” Kamala Harris, then the district attorney of San Francisco, explained, “I chose to file criminal charges against six parents whose children, as young as 6 years old, had missed as many as 80 days out of a 180-day school year. Those parents are now reporting to a model Truancy Court we created.” One of the powers of the court is to mandate family services and training programs. In the case of a chronic truant, the student may become a ward of the court.

Harris’s crusade began with a letter. Near the start of the 2007-08 school year, all parents or guardians of San Francisco Unified School District students received notification that Harris was prepared to prosecute those who “broke the law by keeping their children out of school.” (Under California law, school attendance is mandatory for children under 18.)

In an article in the Bay Citizen, Harris proclaimed her policy a success. Pointing to figures that show “an increase of 4,500 attendance days by students identified as chronic truants,” she said that the increase caused a “savings of $350,000.” That is, the schools received $350,000 of additional funding from the state and federal governments.

Other statistics back up the claim. For example, in the 2007-08 school year, there were reported to be 5,436 students with ten or more unexcused absences. In 2009-10, there were 3,605.

Eager to “save” more, Harris then pushed a 2010 Chronic Truancy Reduction bill. As a result of its passage, the parents of truants can now be punished with a maximum sentence of a year in jail or a $2,000 fine or both.

Other cash-strapped school districts are taking notes. An article in the San Francisco Chronicle last May explains, “A year ago, Berkeley school Superintendent Bill Huyett took about $250,000 out of the district’s bank account and placed a bet.” He hired staff “to focus entirely on student attendance.” The result? Within nine months, the district reaped “more than $1 million in state and other funding to pay for the 150 additional students on average who now show up for school each day.” The district reversed its plans to send out 148 pink slips to teachers.


Backlash against truancy policies

In March 2010 the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) filed a lawsuit against the officials of six Rhode Island schools and several family-court judges. Filed on behalf of nine parents and their children, Boyer v. Jeremiah accused school officials of using truancy charges as punishment, and it challenged the constitutionality of the state’s truancy court.

The ACLU pointed out

that the state’s truancy court system is devoid of due process protections in violation of state and federal law, that the truancy courts are frequently punitive in nature, and that truancy court magistrates threaten vulnerable children and their parents with baseless fines and imprisonment, remove children from the custody of their parents without legal justification, and fail to keep adequate records of court hearings.

The lack of records is particularly damaging, as there are no transcripts on which to base an appeal. Boyer v. Jeremiah is ongoing.

The attempt of school officials to reach ever more deeply into families is also ongoing. Instead of treating truancy with a suspension or detention, as they have in the past, schools are treating truants as “pre-criminals” who must be reined in. Instead of going to the root causes of truancy — such as the authoritarian incompetence and unpleasantness of schools — officials are blaming parents.

Dragging children to attend classes they hate will never produce education. Tossing children to the juvenile court system to keep them out of prison in later life achieves the opposite. Jailing parents who may lose their jobs as a consequence shows utter contempt for the well-being of families and children. The war on truancy does not help children. If helping children were the goal, they would not be stripped of their rights, taken from their families, and made to watch their parents go to jail. Such practices make no sense until you factor in the funding received by public schools for every kidnapped child.

The truancy flap is about cold cash. It is also about school authority, which has become one of the greatest dangers to children in American society. Such is the inevitable result once government controls education. It’s just one more reason that school and state should be separated.

This article was originally published in the February 2013 edition of Future of Freedom.

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    Wendy McElroy is an author for The Future of Freedom Foundation, a fellow of the Independent Institute, and the author of The Reasonable Woman: A Guide to Intellectual Survival (Prometheus Books, 1998).