The Real Cost of Truancy in California, $46.4 Billion, Dwarfs Money Lost for Low Attendance

Tuesday, October 08, 2013

The state Attorney General’s office says truancy costs school districts $1.4 billion a year in lost compensation for low attendance rates, but that is only a fraction of the $46.4 billion bill from incarceration expenses and lost economic productivity related to student dropouts.

Using data from California’s Department of Education, the AG’s report entitled “In School + On Track” laid the blame for a surfeit of state ills on elementary school absences. Hallmarks of the “attendance crisis” include 250,000 elementary school students who miss at least 10% of the school year and 83,000 students who miss more than three weeks with unexcused absences. Nearly 30% of elementary students were truant during the 2012-13 school year.  

The report cited a Chicago study which calculated that low-income elementary students who miss five days have a 7% less chance of graduating for every additional day they miss. More than 80% of prisoners in America are high school dropouts. The report calculates that a 10% increase in graduation rates would reduce murder and assault rates by 20%.

High school dropouts are 2.5 times more likely to go on welfare than high school graduates and earn $1 million less over their lifetime. There are early indications who those dropouts will be, the report says. First-graders with nine or more absences are twice as likely to drop out of high school.

Early intervention is the key to keeping kids in school, and the report suggests that California could begin by starting what 46 other states are already doing: collecting individualized student attendance records at the state level. The AG found that only half the schools that responded to its “California School District Leadership Survey” could even confirm that they track a student’s attendance from one year to the next, rendering the most-at-risk students “invisible.”

The AG’s recommendations for improving the situation were mostly common sense. Collect and collate the attendance data, share it with families and key local agencies, design programs to let everyone know how important school attendance is, target funding at improving attendance, and stop suspending kids for truancy because that’s kinda counterproductive.

The report is packed with page after page of miserable numbers from the Education Department and other sources. But the report closes its section on the cost of high school dropouts with a salient observation about how the world has changed for those kids.

“In past generations, a high school dropout could find a decent-paying job in a factory or in the trades. Today, many factory jobs have increasingly moved overseas and the complexity of technology and engineering involved in the trades require at least a high school education—if not higher training.”

What it doesn’t say is that increasingly, high school graduates are now yesterday’s dropouts—jockeying for the retail and low-paying service jobs that replaced those in manufacturing—while students with undergraduate degrees are yesterday’s high school grads. That might not be a huge incentive to stay in school.

–Ken Broder      


To Learn More:

CA Report Says Truancy May Cost State Billions (by Robert Jablon, Associated Press)

California Truancy Is at “Crisis” Level, Says Attorney General (by Teresa Watanabe, Los Angeles Times)

In School + On Track (Office of the California Attorney General)

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