Truancy, Driven by Low Income and Marked by Racial Divide, Still Costing State Billions

Tuesday, September 23, 2014

Much of California Attorney General Kamala Harris2014 report on truancy and absenteeism in elementary schools could easily be swapped with last year’s dismal inaugural annual review.

But this year’s report takes note of an enormous racial and economic divide. “Almost 90% of the elementary students with the most severe attendance problems—those who miss 36 days or more of school per year—are estimated to be low-income,” the report released last week says. “And 1 in 10 low-income students missed 10% or more of the 2013-2014 school year.”

African American students were the largest group of truants at 37%. That’s even higher than homeless students (30%). They miss 10% or more of school at a rate two and a half times that of white students, but are four times more likely to be classified as chronically truant and three times more likely to miss at least 36 days of school.

The report says that new research indicates absenteeism is exacerbated by suspensions, which fall much more heavily on black students: “African American children represent only 18% of preschool enrollment, yet they account for over 40% of all preschool students suspended at least once.” 

The pattern continues in elementary school where black kids are suspended twice as often as whites in first- through fifth-grade. They are three times more likely than whites to be suspended in first- and second-grade. “Suspensions in elementary school are an important indicator of whether or not the same students will be suspended in high school.”

Attendance problems are highest in early years and, according to the report, have a huge bearing on whether a student graduates from high school. “Only 17% of chronically absent kindergartners and first-graders in California read proficiently by 3rd grade,” the report says. That is critical because, “Students who don’t read proficiently by 3rd grade are 4 times more likely to drop out of school.”

The report’s executive summary is entitled “Every Kid Counts,” which is probably a “we care” statement but could also be construed as a lament for the estimated $46 billion dropouts cost the state each year. That scary number is derived by factoring in incarceration costs and lost economic productivity generated by the kids left behind.

Schools lost about $1.1 billion in compensation for lack of attendance in 2012-13, the last year numbers were available. State funding for school districts and counties is based on a new formula built around average daily attendance that was adopted by the state this year. But right now, some of the tools schools need to monitor and control attendance are not available.

For instance, the report suggests that the state could reduce absenteeism if it did a better job of tracking students who move around a lot. “California is one of only four states in the nation that does not track attendance statewide,” the report says, which “severely hampers school districts’ ability to reduce truancy and chronic absence.” Up to 1 in 6 students will change schools at least twice before the end of third-grade. Their attendance records generally do not follow them.  

The section on “Signs of Progress” is one short paragraph that leads with the low-key assessment that, “In some counties, local school districts are working creatively and collaboratively to address the elementary school attendance crisis.” But there are no hard numbers to support an improvement beyond acknowledgment by school districts that they have a growing awareness of the problem of absenteeism.  

The truancy rate increased 5.9%, from 20.13% to 21.32% between 2011-12 and 2012-13. The report presents this 1.19 percentage-point increase as the percentage increase. But they are not the same, perhaps indicating that someone might have missed an early math class.

–Ken Broder


To Learn More:

California Study: Truancy Data Shows Racial Divide (by Julie Watson, Associated Press)

Truancy Costing California Schools Billions, Report Says (by Jill Tucker, San Francisco Chronicle)

The Real Cost of Truancy in California, $46.4 Billion, Dwarfs Money Lost for Low Attendance (by Ken Broder, AllGov California)

In School + On Track 2014 (California Attorney General)

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