The Real Crisis in California’s Public Schools

The state’s truancy report is silent on core issues.

Journalistic curmudgeon H.L. Mencken once remarked that the main purpose of modern politics was to keep the public alarmed and eager to be led to safety “by menacing it with an endless series of hobgoblins, all of them imaginary.”

A cynic might hear the echoes of Mencken after California Attorney General Kamala Harris this week released a report calling attention to an elementary-school truancy “crisis” – and asking for far-reaching measures to deal with parents who let their kids repeatedly skip school.

California’s “shocking” levels of truancy are “at the root of the state’s chronic criminal-justice problems,” according to Harris. No one wants youngsters skipping school, hanging out in gangs, and heading for a life of crime, of course. But a closer look at the report raises the question: Is this a full-fledged crisis or a hobgoblin?

“In California, students are marked truant when they miss school or come late by more than 30 minutes without a valid excuse at least three times during an academic year,” according to a recent report in U-T San Diego. A “habitual truant” is someone who misses five days of school without an excuse over the course of, say, a 175-day school year.

Many kids have serious truancy problems, but sky-high truancy rates – more than 19 percent in San Diego County districts, and much higher in some other parts of the state – are inflated because of such broad definitions.

I recall receiving a truancy warning letter from a school principal because my daughter was late a couple of times. She was a straight-A student and active in extracurricular events, but had issues getting ready in the morning.

“Schools lose money every time kids are truant,” explains Larry Sand, president of the California Teachers Empowerment Network, which is critical of teachers' unions. “There’s a need for different categories of truancy.”

Even Harris focuses on the fiscal implications of truancy: “According to new research conducted for this report, school districts lose $1.4 billion per year by failing to get students to school because school funding is based on student attendance rates.”

Truancy isn’t an imaginary problem, but it might be less severe if officials worried more about what happens once kids get into the classroom and less about keeping seats filled to keep the money flowing.

“Go below those (truancy) rates and you’ll find bored kids and kids who have been failed by the system,” said Lance Izumi, a member of the California Community College’s board of governors and a scholar at the right-leaning Pacific Research Institute. He believes a system of choice, where parents pick schools that best meet their children’s needs, would dampen truancy rates.

Even the anti-school-choice California Teachers Association argues that cutbacks in music and arts programs and persistent bullying are reasons for high truancy rates. We can all agree, then, that the quality of school programs and level of safety play a big role here.

Former Los Angeles Sen. Gloria Romero of Democrats for Education Reform says Harris’ approach is an outgrowth of the tough-on-crime approach she took while running for attorney general. “School attendance matters,” Romero told me. “The way this is launched … it’s going after body count.” School programs. she added, should encourage more kids to want to go to school.

The Harris report calls for better systems of tracking truant students, more intense interventions by public officials including home visits after a student’s first unexcused absence, more involvement by social-service agencies, and a commitment (albeit as a last resort) by district attorneys to prosecute parents of chronically truant kids.

Harris also argues against policies that remove children from classrooms, i.e., suspensions. But ill-behaving students’ bullying and disruptive behavior can create a climate that leads other students to skip class.

Truancy can indeed lead to lifelong problems. But one needn’t be as cynical as Mencken to at least wonder whether Harris is helping districts solve a real problem – or scaring Californians into approving new funds and laws that miss the heart of the problem.

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  • Rich||

    "students are marked truant when they miss school or come late by more than 30 minutes without a valid excuse at least three times during an academic year." A “habitual truant” is someone who misses five days of school without an excuse over the course of, say, a 175-day school year.

    [It's hobgoblin-y to use] such broad definitions.

    In the workaday world one might be fired for less. Just sayin'.

  • ||

    To be fair, in the workaday world you (or your parents) aren't paying your employer.

  • hrsdty||

    No, because "a valid excuse" has been redfined to mean one thing: illness. It used to be that truant meant absence without a parent's permission.

    I took days off work last year to fly to N.Y.C., visit the SD Wild Animal Park, go camping etc. I notified the school, but they sent letters listing my children as truant on those same days, truant because absent without excuse.

    In fact, the school official asked me to lie on the absence slip and claim they were sick; since my kids were standing right there I replpied, "I don't approve of lying."

  • James Anderson Merritt||

    Yes. If parents were directly to pay tutors, and the kids were unable to bond with the tutors and look forward to their daily lessons -- if the kids actually contrived to avoid or skip out on those lessons -- the parents would fire the tutors. I have worked in the private school sector, and this is EXACTLY how it works -- how it SHOULD work, in my opinion.

  • Night Elf Mohawk||

    Even the anti-school-choice California Teachers Association argues that cutbacks in music and arts programs and persistent bullying are reasons for high truancy rates.

    I'm going to go out on a limb and guess that there are myriad reasons for truancy. I missed days constantly because there was no challenge and a parade of shitty teachers made being there intolerable. Some didn't go because they didn't want to be there in the first place. Some needed to work. Some wanted to work. Some were probably bullied. I guess it's conceivable that some had a beloved music class cut.

    Maybe step one is realizing that not everyone even needs or wants to be in school, even if it means the school gets less money.

  • ||

    You mean the governments one size fits all approach to everything might not work? That's unpossible!

  • Drake||

    Kids with high truancy rates have shitty parents - that simple. The kind of shit parents who would actually send their kids to CA public schools.

  • Night Elf Mohawk||

    No, it isn't that simple.

  • Sevo||

    Agreed.
    With the grasp the unions have of the school system, quite a few people in CA have no choice but to let their kids be warehoused by the government schools.

  • hrsdty||

    That's uninformed. Truancy doesn't mean what you think it means anymore.

  • BuSab Agent||

    Some, but definitely not all. I went to CA public schools and my parents weren't shitty. I was also exceedingly truant, but I knew how to work the system. I would leave after homeroom, so the main office wouldn't call, which even if they did no one was ever home during work hours (this was before the time of cell phones or answering machines). I could do perfect forgeries of both my mom and dad's handwriting.
    I left because school was boring, being beat up every day wasn't my cup of tea, and I had much better things to do with my time.

  • The Late P Brooks||

    The definition of insanity is not recognizing your business model is broken even though you have to force your customers to show up at gunpoint.

  • Acosmist||

    Newsflash: kids don't like school.

  • LindseyinWa||

    I'm reading this on the first day I have let my 12 year old stay home from school. She wasn't feeling spectacular, but wasn't overtly sick. Do you have tests today? "No." Do you have assignments due? "No." Are you expecting homework over the weekend? "No." What are you doing today in class? "30 minute classes so that we can have a Pep Rally. What's a Pep Rally?" Watching the cheerleaders perform a routine they've worked on. "Please, can I stay home?"

  • Wizard4169||

    I'm proud to say I played a role in my local high school discontinuing pep rallies. After I kicked up a fuss, they made attendance optional. So few students showed up, they eventually gave up. Nice to know I accomplished something in the three years I wasted in high school. (I was there for four years, but I figure I spent at least a quarter of my time doing something educational, productive or at least entertaining.)

  • Eduard van Haalen||

    "Harris also argues against policies that remove children from classrooms, i.e., suspensions."

    Yeah, don't punish the disruptive students, punish the peaceable and studious ones instead.

    And the thing is, public schools vigorously pat themselves on the back for keeping these kids in classrooms, so unlike the private schools which insist that students be respectful of the learning environment or else get out.

  • Eduard van Haalen||

    I mean, I could understand saying, "no, we don't do suspensions, we give mishehaving students a good smack with a ruler," but they don't do that, either. No, it's basically ignore the misbehavior and then wonder why the peaceable students don't want to come to school.

  • swdavis125||

    Ah it's a "Brave New World"

  • doorcheese||

    California’s “shocking” levels of truancy are “at the root of the state’s chronic criminal-justice problems,” according to Harris. Kamala Is right if she is referring to blacks and Mexicans. Asians and Whites? no

  • Sevo||

    'Mercan,
    How many handles do you have?
    Oh, and fuck off.

  • Acosmist||

    "Shut up," he argued.

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  • PusaAtDaga||

    My high school had some stupid attendance policies. Three late arrivals got you detention - during school hours. That's correct, not after school, not on the weekend, but during the school day. Those were back when California was 'sane'.

  • thinksubstance||

    Taking electives out, having the PC police instill discipline and not demanding that the student and parent step up their game, when talking about education is the problem. Having these kids grow up with morals and values of Hollywood is killing our nation. Trust me, I live in the school environment. Old school discipline with strong values will help solve the problem. But there is a lawyer hiding around every corner.

  • Sevo||

    thinksubstance|10.4.13 @ 10:26PM|#
    "Taking electives out, having the PC police instill discipline and not demanding that the student and parent step up their game, when talking about education is the problem."

    And the teachers' unions have what incentive to do this?

  • thinksubstance||

    Don't get me started on the unions. There time has come and gone. However if electives were increased more teachers would be needed in these disciplines. Teachers would truly be able to discipline in fair ways, we are now under the authority of (ruby Payne) discipline. And does the public ever hear our politicians say it's your fault your kids don't learn and are trouble makers? The unions should embrace the theory that parents, students and teachers are involved in educating. Right now it's the teachers fault and our hands are tied.

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    up to I saw the check saying $4560, I didnt believe ...that...my cousin could truley bringing in money part time on their laptop.. there uncle started doing this for only about 16 months and recently took care of the mortgage on there apartment and bought a top of the range Aston Martin DB5. visit this site
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