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.