A very concerning bill was introduced in the Utah House yesterday.
HB151, "Chronic Absenteeism Amendments," looks innocuous on a cursory reading. But if you put the pieces of this puzzle together, you will see the picture of a culture shifting in the wrong direction.
The bill defines "chronically absent" as "a student who is absent 10% of a school year"; it defines "absent" as "a student in kindergarten through grade 12 assigned to a class or class period who fails to attend the entire class or class period"; and it requires the State Board of Education to report the number and percentage of students who were chronically absent on each school's AYP (Annual Yearly Progress) report.
So what's the problem with that?
This bill doesn't distinguish between excused and unexcused absences. It treats a kid who leaves school half an hour early with his mother to go to an orthodontist appointment (that's right - if you miss 30 minutes you're counted absent for the whole day), the same as a kid who skipped the whole day to hang out on the corner and sell drugs. If this bill were to become law, it would begin a major shift away from Utah's current system of recording absences, a system which honors a parent's authority to decide when her child should miss school.
This shift would put pressure on schools to improve their attendance numbers. Schools that fall below certain levels on their AYP reports have to improve performance in those categories in order to regain certain funding. With this statistic added to the AYP report, schools would come under pressure to improve their attendance numbers, even if they aren't having any issues with academic achievement.
Even if the vast majority of its students' "absences" were attributable to entirely excused reasons - illness, club sports, youth leadership conferences, musical and dance performance opportunities, traveling to visit a college prospect, traveling with family, an hour for a doctor's or dentist's or orthodontist's appointment - a school would have to begin pressuring families to cut back on absences.
While advocates for reducing all absences point to studies indicating that students who miss a lot of school often fail or drop out, they make the huge mistake of asserting causation, when these two datapoints are only in a relationship of correlation. Even though kids who fail or drop out are typically absent a lot, absence does not cause failure or dropping out.
Many of the very best students miss a lot of school because they are also active in other areas of their lives. Many good, steady students miss a lot of school because of chronic illness. But they keep up with their work and maintain communication with their teachers, and they are in no way in danger of falling through the cracks.
Utah should not pass a law that would inevitably restrict these students from pursuing their dreams, restrict parents from making wise choices about the rest needed by a chronically ill child, and shift the decision-making about what's best for an individual child from his parents to the state.
If the state wants to track unexcused absences - actual cases of skipping - that could be beneficial. But requiring schools to report all absences, and counting even a fraction of a missed day as a full day of absence, will put pressure on schools to reduce every absence, even positive, beneficial ones. The natural consequence of putting so much pressure on schools to improve their attendance numbers will be that schools will go back to the legislature asking for legal means to coerce parents to send their kids to school.
And that coercive pressure will, of course, be felt heavily by Utah families. The presumption that parents know what's best for their children will begin to evaporate as the assumption that the state knows what's best for children (being in school no matter what!) takes its place.
This new category of "chronic absenteeism" should not be added to the requirements for AYP reports. HB151 should be vigorously opposed.
HB151 - Chronic Absenteeism Amendments
1 in 7 kids in Utah is chronically absent - NoDropOuts.org
This article includes a link to the study by the University of Utah's Education Policy Center that examined this issue. Read it in light of the considerations I've discussed in this article, including the many legitimate and even beneficial reasons for being absent, and the push by some segments of society to wrest authority over children from parents and give it to the state. The article itself raises the specter of a potential future push for state-funded after-school programs.
What You Can Do:
Contact your Utah state representative and share your concerns. Find your representative here.
The bill has not yet been assigned to a committee for a hearing - it's still in the Rules Committee. If you are interested, you can follow this blog to receive an update when the bill gets assigned to a committee so you can know which house members to contact, and when a hearing might be held.
Ad mo ne o - Latin, verb. To admonish, advise, urge.
Here you'll find a review of what's happening in Utah government - state, counties, school boards, & cities, with a focus on education - as well as what Utah's U.S. Congressmen and Senators are doing. You'll get my take on it, find links to other sources of information, and find suggestions and contact info so you can DO something. Being involved in local government is key to maintaining freedom. Find something you can do and, no matter how small, DO IT! As British philosopher Edmund Burke said, "No man made a greater mistake than he who did nothing because he could do only a little."