June 29th, 2010
Chronic Absence vs. Chronic Truancy
Two bills working their way through the California Assembly offer distinctly different approaches to improving school attendance. One defines chronic absence and calls for its tracking. The other defines chronic truancy and seeks to use the power of the law to compel parents to improve their children’s school attendance. It calls for charging parents with a misdemeanor if their children miss too much school and allows judges to defer entering a judgment so charges can be dropped if parents begin taking their children to school regularly.
The difference between chronic absence and chroinc truancy is more than a matter of semantics. And, it’s important to understand the terms–not just for California but for communities across the country grappling with the best approach to improving attendance.
“Chronic absence” is missing an extended amount of school for any reason, and includes both excused and unexcused absences. Although no standard definition exists, Attendance Counts recommends defining chronic absence as missing 10 percent or more of school in an academic year. Our research found that missing that much school was associated with declining academic performance, starting as early as kindergarten.
Monitored regularly, this 10 percent measure can be used early in the academic year to identify students or schools before poor attendance adversely affects academic performance. Senate Bill 1357, calls for adding attendance to California’s state longitudinal data base so the state can support districts in calculating and reporting on chronic absence.
“Chronic truancy” refers only to unexcused absences. Federal law requires each state to define and report on truancy. In California, truancy is defined as being “absent from school without a valid excuse three full days in one year or tardy or absent more than any 30-minute period during the school day without a valid excuse on three occasions in one school year, or any combination thereof.”
California currently does not have a legal definition of “chronic truancy” although state law defines a habitual truant as a pupil who has been reported as a truant three or more times per school year and a school official has, prior to this designation, made an effort to meet with the student and parent at least once.
Some current policy proposals, including Senate Bill 1317, seek to establish “chronic truancy” as missing 10 percent or more of school due to unexcused absences. Such a definition seeks to make it easier to recognize what level of truancy is problematic enough to warrant a more significant response.
What’s made the bill controversial is a provision for criminal penalties–a fine of up to $2,000 or a jail term of up to a year–for parents. Amendments to the bill now require a series of interventions before criminal prosecution can begin.
Measuring both is important because the solutions to chronic absence vs. chronic truancy may not be the same.
- Chronic absence can occur for a variety of reasons. Sometime, especially in Kindergarten, the challenge is that parents don’t realize attendance matters especially since it isn’t compulsory. Or, it can be a sign that child and their family faces a significant barrier to school – like asthma or other chronic illness, unreliable transportation, or a crisis in the family. If chronic absence affects large numbers of students, it may reflect challenging community conditions, such as community violence, foreclosures, or lack of access to health care.
- Chronic truancy, which is much more common among older students, indicates that students or their families are not abiding by state compulsory education laws, especially if parents and students fail to respond to offers of support.
While a more legalistic approach may be a very appropriate response to chronic truancy after other interventions fail, chronic absence is best addressed through a comprehensive approach that combines positive, universal programming (e.g. attendance incentives and parent education) with more intensive supports and interventions targeting chronically absent students and their families.
Ultimately our goal is to prevent absences–by improving community health, stressing the importance of attendance and reaching out to children in need. These strategies reach far more families than a punitive approach. And they are far less expensive.