Purpose Statement

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."

Friday, February 22, 2013

Absenteeism: When Is It Actually a Problem?

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.

Further Information:

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.


  1. Beautifully written; thank you for sharing.

  2. School should be considered a voluntary privilege, not a compulsory placement program like a prison; parents should be in charge of whether or not a student ought to be in the government's school or elsewhere on any given day. Thanks, Autumn.

  3. When I was in High school our DECA team had ten State finalists go to
    Nationals. We had to miss School for a week to go, but it was a tremendous
    opportunity. Some of my teachers gave me a lot of flak because it was
    inconvenient for them. Would opportunities like this disappear outright?

  4. Here in Idaho if you attend a funeral you have to get a brochure from the funeral home; a doctor's appointment requires a note from the doctor, etc. As a mother it rubs me the wrong way, I should be able to take my child out of school at anytime for whatever reason I see fit as long as my students grades stay up. Whose children are they anyway? Thanks for sharing.

  5. This is one we need to fight. Every year, we have a family reunion in the fall. My family comes from Washington State, NYC and RI. We meet in Idaho and spend what is to us, the most important week of the year. During that week, my children learn that they are part of a big family, that they are loved and appreciated by Grandparents, Aunts and Uncles. They spend the whole time enjoying the company of cousins and when it's over, even the teenagers have a good cry. Every year it gets more and more difficult to do this. Teachers and administrators feel that they ought to have a say of whether or not this family trip is appropriate. My sister-in-law in RI had a social worker sent to her home.
    We have been asked so many times, why can't you go in the Summer. There are reasons, but are they really any business of the schools? Or, is this our decision as parents. It gets more and more difficult to see who the parents really are anymore.

  6. I agree, Stephanie. We are the parents. The school doesn't need to know why the children are out. It is none of their business. And I agree with The Management: school should be voluntary. It exists to allow people who would otherwise have no chance to be educated to get an education. And sick kids should not be at school.

    I learned much more at home than I ever learned in school. At home I read the classics, learned about great art, gardening, cooking, sewing, animal husbandry and music, made clay pots out of clay from the creek and discussed current events. With my family I participated in civic events and humanitarian projects. None of that came from school.

    Compelling kids to be at school isn't about giving them a quality education or even making them into productive citizens. It is about controlling their time and their thought processes.

  7. I agree, schools have no real enforcement power anyway... so why burden them with accountability? Still, I think the article (well stated) focuses primarily on a particular subset of kids and families. I wrote an article that talks about absenteeism in a Title One environment which might provide a good bookend.