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Truancy has reached crisis levels in California schools

This story appeared in Calmatters

An empty classroom at Willie L. Brown Jr. Middle School in San Francisco on Feb. 23, 2023. Photo by Shelby Knowles for CalMatters

In summary

Nearly a third of California’s public school students are chronically absent, but the crisis is not getting the attention it deserves.

Gadflies – people obsessed with righting some perceived wrong and pester politicians and journalists to take up their causes – are a constant feature of politics.

One of the state’s more persistent gadflies these days is Thomas Carter, an accountant in Sherman Oaks who sends out almost daily barrages of emails about truancy in public schools, demanding that authorities recognize and address what he regards as a crisis.

“From what school will come the next ignored student to commit crimes, including a mass gun shooting, or be an ignored child abused at a school or in a home, or to become homeless, if a dropout?” is a typical heading on one of Carter’s lengthy emails.

Carter, in an interview, said he became concerned about the issue more than 30 years ago when, as a single parent, he discovered that his son had been missing school and he was not informed of the absences.

“Since then, I’ve been asking the questions,” Carter said. His complaints include sections of the education code that permit, but do not require, chronic truancy to be reported to law enforcement authorities, who could intervene but rarely do.

Carter may be a gadfly whose emails are automatically diverted into the junk file of many recipients, but he has a point about truancy. Surprisingly large numbers of the state’s almost 6 million public school students often don’t show up in class.

Two new reports from the Public Policy Institute of California frame the issue.

“Thirty percent of California public school students were chronically absent from school in 2021-22 – a near tripling of the percentage in 2018-19,” PPIC policy director Laura Hill and research associate Emmanuel Prunty wrote in the first report. “Although we do not know if this stark increase in chronic absenteeism, defined as missing at least 10% of the school year or at least 18 days, will continue, the data from last year raises concerns about the pace of students’ learning recovery after the educational setbacks of the COVID-19 pandemic.”

The PPIC added that “this measure of chronic absenteeism – which includes both excused and unexcused absences – actually underestimates the true scope of missed school because it does not include students who missed fewer than 18 days and does not capture exactly how much instruction students missed (some students may have missed many more than 18 days).”

The second report, merging data about truancy with academic test results, declares, “We find that schools with greater increases in chronic absenteeism saw steeper drops in proficiency rates on the Smarter Balanced (SBAC) English and math tests, when comparing pre-pandemic levels (2018-19) to 2021-22.”

Some of the truancy surge can be attributed to the aftereffects of schools being shuttered during the pandemic – but not all, because the problem isn’t a new one. A 2013 report by the state Department of Justice tabbed chronic truancy at about 20% and declared, “California is facing an attendance crisis, with dire consequences for our economy, our safety, and our children.”

So, one might wonder, why is this evident crisis not given as much attention as it warrants?

State school finance is based largely on attendance and when students are chronically absent, it should have negative financial consequences. However, during the pandemic, the state loosened up on the attendance-based formulas, including allowing reimbursable attendance to be calculated over several years rather than year-by-year, so the immediate financial impacts are muted.

Moreover, there’s been a push by school officials, particularly those with declining numbers of students, to change financial aid from using attendance to enrollment, which would allow them to get money even for enrolled students who are chronically absent.

Such a change would indirectly encourage authorities to ignore chronic truancy.

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