School Choice

4 Tactics Public Schools Are Using To Get Butts Behind Desks

School competition leads to surprising tactics to keep attendance from falling.


The last week of January marks National School Choice Week, a celebration of all the alternatives parents have rather than simply accepting the education their traditional local public school wants to provide.

School choice supporters have been doing well for themselves recently, though it's been an uphill battle. Attendance in privately operated charter schools is on the rise. Around two million students now attend charter school programs. Washington State voters in November approved the creation of 40 charter schools. They're one of the few states left that had not been allowing them. And on Tuesday, California's first parent-triggered charter school takeover succeeded. Desert Trails Elementary School in Adelanto, one of the lower-scoring schools in the state, will be taken over by LaVerne Preparatory Academy, one of the highest-performing schools in its county.

Government funding for schools is partly based on student attendance. Public school systems have for decades drastically increased their number of employees at percentages far, far above the actual growth in student attendance. The result, combined with America's ailing economy and growing public employee retirement burdens, has led to significant pressure for schools to keep those students' butts parked firmly behind their desks. The battle for student attendance has led to evolving tactics by schools. Some are notably authoritarian and controlling, but not all tactics are bad. Some methods of improving student attendance actually may help undo authoritarian public education policies.

Here are four tactics public schools are using to keep attendance from falling.

1. Truancy Sweeps and Fines

And people say it's unfair to compare schools to prisons

Truancy sweeps are common occurrences in California. Just typing the words into Google will net you a page of California-centric stories of educators and law enforcement officials teaming up to scour communities for wayward students, detaining them and trying to force them back behind their desks by threat of fine or arrest. Sometimes these sweeps net homeschooled or alternative school students who keep different schedules from traditional schools, and sometimes these families discover the law doesn't care.

Though law enforcement officials attempt to stress that keeping kids in school reduces potential criminal behavior in the future, the reality is that each of those truant children costs the school district cold, hard cash. And so, of course, fines become a tool not just for punishment, but for recovery. The government will get its money somehow.

Police at Los Angeles Unified School District, notably, annually hand out thousands of tickets to young students, particularly minorities. The Center for Public Integrity went through their citation rates for 2012 and found them little changed from 2011, despite a promise from the district to ease up on their sweeps that often targeted students not skipping school, but rather arriving at school late. As the Center's report notes, these citations often ironically required students to then miss school in order to resolve them with the courts.

Next: Domestic surveillance is not just for the federal government.

2. Microchip Tracking

See alt-text on previous page

San Antonio teen Andrea Hernandez, 15, made waves in late 2012 for refusing to wear a microchip that allowed her school to electronically track her location. Her case drew ire from privacy activists from both the left and the right. A federal judge ruled Tuesday, however, that the San Antonio Northside School District had the right to expel Hernandez from Jay High School (of note, a public magnet school) if she refused to wear the school ID. As Forbes notes, though, the school actually removed the tracking chip as a compromise, but she still doesn't want to carry around the location badge. The conservative Rutherford Institute, which is representing Hernandez, is promising to appeal.

Note the defense of the tracking chips in the Thomson Reuters news report:

The school district—the fourth largest in Texas with about 100,000 students—is not attempting to track or regulate students' activities, or spy on them, district spokesman Pascual Gonzalez said. Northside is using the technology to locate students who are in the school building but not in the classroom when the morning bell rings, he said.

Texas law counts a student present for purposes of distributing state aid to education funds based on the number of pupils in the classroom at the start of the day. Northside said it was losing $1.7 million a year due to students loitering in the stairwells or chatting in the hallways.

If they already know where the students are loitering, what exactly is the value of the tracking chips? How is somebody looking up the kids' location on a computer and then tracking them down physically any more efficient than just having a hall monitor?

Next: Let's stop kicking kids out of school!

3. Suspension/Expulsion Reform

He knows all about authoritarian persecution!

School officials in Maryland made the news earlier in the month after suspending a 6-year-old boy for pointing his finger like it was a gun. His family quickly got themselves a lawyer, and not long afterward the school rescinded the suspension and wiped it from the boy's record.

Because funding is based on attendance, kicking students out of school obviously comes with costs. As a consequence, schools are now reconsidering the "no tolerance" policies that have led to such ridiculous outcomes and have proven to be so costly to school districts' bottom lines.

In Colorado in November, legislators passed a law to scale back "no tolerance" rules, giving administrators and school boards more leeway in determining student discipline. The legislation followed another silly disciplinary incident where a 6-year-old was accused of sexual harassment and suspended for singing LFMAO's "[I'm] Sexy and I Know It" to another student.

Other school districts are attempting to follow suit and reduce suspensions and expulsions as go-to disciplinary tools. The Washington Post noted this week that D.C. charter schools actually expel students at a much higher rate than their public school counterparts.

Beyond preserving funds by keeping students in school, the reform also takes into account that parents' hands are no longer tied when dealing with authoritarian responses from school administrators and teachers. Had the parents of the boy with the finger guns found his school officials to be unresponsive, they could have essentially taken their business elsewhere. Maryland has many charter schools.

Next: Maybe we don't actually need their butts at their desks after all.

4. Online Classes

Teachers unions have historically resisted the development of online courses as an alternative to traditional classroom education. As Reason's Katherine-Mangu Ward wrote in 2010:

The National Education Association, the country's main teachers union, takes a hard line on virtual charters such as K12. "There also should be an absolute prohibition against the granting of charters for the purpose of home-schooling, including online charter schools that seek to provide home-schooling over the Internet," says the organization's official policy statement on charter schools. "Charter schools whose students are in fact home schoolers, and who may rarely if ever convene in an actual school building, disregard the important socialization aspect of public education, do not serve the public purpose of promoting a sense of community, and lend themselves too easily to the misuse of public funds and the abuse of public trust."

No more teacher's dirty looks

Though the unions are still typically resistant to the development of charter schools, be they real or virtual, public school districts are slowly getting on board with online education, at least as a supplement if not a replacement.

Utah has enacted a law allowing school districts, both public and charter, to offer online classes to high school students. The school would still get some of the state aid, so there is less fear of educational flexibility resulting in funding drops. Even so, as Paul E. Peterson of Education Next notes, meddlers are attempting to game the system in favor of protecting public schools, reducing the funding for online classes, and restricting students from using the system to actually get ahead in their studies.

Many states are actually mandating students incorporate online education into their course load, though the details vary and efforts to require students take classes for credit often get scaled back. A mandate in Idaho to require students to take two semester-long online classes in order to graduate was defeated at the polls in November. But perhaps its defeat is more of a reflection of the way public schools try to manage its students—one-size-fits-all solutions dictated by authority (not to mention some likely rent-seeking from connected private providers)—rather than embracing the flexibility online and charter programs are trying to provide and that parents and students are hungering for.