Photo by Renato Ganoza on Flickr.

How can the students learn what they must, if they aren’t coming to school when they must? Councilmember David Catania, chair of the newly-resurrected education committee has been asking this question. He has proposed prosecuting parents whose kids miss school. Is that the right approach? Whether it is or not, none else have suggested any alternative.

In retrospect, one conspicuous question is, why hasn’t this issue gotten more attention before? Truancy has been treated heretofore as an unpleasant fact of life; some children will refuse to come to school regularly in any community. As they will probably drop out eventually, why spend significant resources to coerce them to attend school?

This attitude derives from a singularly unsound assumption that the District’s truancy rate is roughly comparable with similar communities, and that this rate is essentially immutable without spitpolishing the Augean stables. By one measure, DC’s truancy rate is five times the national average.

Chronic truancy, which DC defines a student missing more than 21 school days—a full month’s classes—without documented excuse, is rampant.

Six high schools have chronic truancy rates over 30%, according to DCPS. The Urban Institute has different numbers, and suggests that seven high schools have rates over 40% with Anacostia high reaching 66%.

These rates strongly correlate with test scores, which suggests that overall educational reform cannot be successful without addressing this issue.

Graph from the DC council.

Naturally, the effects of truancy don’t end there.

  1. This may seem obvious, but children who have no history of truancy have a heightened probability of becoming chronic truants if their school has a high rate of truancy.
  2. Truants are far more likely to drop out of school before graduation.
  3. Before they do, they will test poorly; schools with high truancy rates manifest low test scores.
  4. Criminals are far more likely to have been truants.
  5. As a result of #3 and #4, truants are far more likely to have significant spells of unemployment after they reach adulthood.

Catania offers a possible solution; is it the right one?

Catania has proposed a bill to address this issue by strictly enforcing penalties for parents, should their children repeatedly be absent.

The current law has penalties, too. Should a child miss two or more days of class unexcused, his or her parents are subject under current law to a $100 fine and up to (!) 5 days in jail. This penalty is almost entirely unenforced.

Catana’s bill would soften the criteria, levying penalties only after 10 days unexcused per year. However, should the child miss 20 or more days, the bill would make it mandatory to prosecute the parents. The penalties would initially only include community service and/or parenting classes, but could include jail time if the parents fail to complete their service. Parents would be able to avoid prosecution only by requesting parenting aid from Child Services.

Is punishing parents appropriate? Catania notes that there is little else to do. Directly punishing the student, through in-school or home suspension, only increases the likelihood of further truancy, and no other penalty for students has much salience.

Is there any other alternative?

The opponents of this bill—and there are manyargue that holding (often working) parents responsible for their children’s attendance is unfair, and criminalizes parental difficulties rather than assisting with them. They further allege that this essentially targets the poor, as it there is a clear link between parental socioeconomic status and a child’s propensity to be truant.

What they do not articulate, beyond general exhortations for better schools, is how to address the problem. At a recent hearing before the DC Council on the subject of truancy, many witnesses raised those objections to the proposal, but beyond repeated expressions of frustration from witnesses and councilmembers, none present articulated any coherent alternatives.

Perhaps Catania’s bill is the best option available to address this problem. Or, perhaps it over-simplifies the issue. To think about the issue, first we must analyze a more fundamental question: Why do children become chronic truants? We’ll look at that in the next part of this series.

Rahul Sinha is a member of Greater Greater Washington’s Elections Committee, and has been a contributor since 2013. He was born in the District and has lived in Kalorama Triangle since 2009. During the day Rahul works as an economist and data scientist for international development. He served a term on a DCPS advisory board, and currently serves as a trustee on the board of a DC charter school.