Our state can’t come up with a consistent definition for truancy. Yet many lawmakers do agree that children in poor families who fail to come to school should be dealt with more severely than their counterparts in more affluent households. That is the consequence of HB 4014, a bill that would end cash assistance to needy families of children who are declared chronically truant by their school district.

This would mean a loss of about $386 a month in cash benefits for the average family. The bill—passed through the House last week on a 74-36 vote—seeks to codify policy the Department of Human Services put in place two years ago. Since then, about 350 families have lost the cash benefits, Rep. Marcia Hovey-Wright (D-Muskegon), told her fellow House members as she spoke out in opposition of the bill.

According to Gongwer News, Hovey-Wright said there was no follow up and the department does not know what happened to those families. She also cited the lack of a consistent definition of truancy throughout the state as contributing to the problem. As a result, the rules vary between the 880-plus traditional and charter school districts we have across the state.

This is troubling because as indicated in our recent report on school discipline For Naught: How Zero Tolerance Policy and School Police Practices Imperil Our Student’s Future, truancy is the leading cause of suspension in some districts.

We need better tracking of missed seat time, a better way to deal with students who are missing school repeatedly than suspending or expelling them, and an alternative to dealing with the families of those who happen to come from low-income homes than to take money from their parents but not address the root cause. We can’t just say we want to send a message to parents that they need to do more to make sure their kids are in school but only establish policy for the poor students.

Our state's truancy problem has less to do with “bad” children skipping school than it does with variables often out of the control of those affected from not having school uniforms, winter coats or clean clothes, to being bullied or having to stay at home to babysit siblings.

Sen. Tonya Schuitmaker (R-Lawton) was lead sponsor last session on a package of legislation that would have created definitions for truancy and chronic absenteeism and provided guidelines for dealing with students with preventative and corrective measures. The bills didn’t move before the session came to a close.

Our legislature would be wise to consider revisiting that proposal or looking at a similar fix that would focus on the causes of truant behavior for all students.

By Rodd Monts, Field Director

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