California Facing Up to the High Costs of Truancy

A new report by the California state attorney general shows that a student attendance crisis is jeopardizing the state’s academic future — and is adding to school funding problems. The report found that one out of every four elementary school students, which amounts to nearly 1 million, are truant each year, according to Teresa Watanabe of Los Angeles Times.

Statewide, 38% of all truant students are elementary school children. One school reported that more than 92% of students were truant in the 2011-2012 school year, Attorney General Kamala D. Harris said in her first annual study of elementary student truancy.

According to the report, school districts lose $1.4 billion per year by failing to get students to school because school funding is based on student attendance rates. The cost to the state is far greater. Factoring in the costs of incarceration and lost economic productivity and tax revenues, dropouts cost California an estimated $46.4 billion per year.

Truancy is also against the law. California’s Compulsory Education Law requires every child from the age of 6 to 18 to be in school – on time, every day.

“The California Constitution guarantees every child the right to an education, yet we are failing our youngest children, as early as kindergarten,” Harris said in a statement. “This crisis is not only crippling for our economy, it is a basic threat to public safety.”

According to the report, Santa Cruz, San Luis Obispo and Calaveras had the highest truancy rates — about 30% — last year. Los Angeles County’s rate was 20.5%, with about 166,000 truant elementary students. Three of the five elementary campuses with truancy rates at 90% or higher were in the Pasadena Unified School District, where the overall truancy rate increased to 66% last year from 17% in 2008-09.

Eric Sahakian, Pasadena’s director of child welfare, attendance and safety, said “dramatic budget cuts” in staff handling attendance as well as financial hardship among families during the recession contributed to the district’s elevated rates. The system has launched a new attendance improvement plan this year.

During the recession, Los Angeles Unified’s overall truancy rates also rose to 43% last year from 28% in 2009-10 and lost $126 million in state dollars this year. District officials said that part of the problem was the cut of nearly 30% of its specialized attendance counselors over the last five years. Under a new program launched last year, the rates have started to decline.

Harris’ interest in the issue was sparked when, as San Francisco district attorney, she found that a disproportionate number of criminals and crime victims were high school dropouts whose academic failure began much earlier, said Brian Nelson, special assistant attorney general.

Harris called for support of families struggling with key causes of truancy: poverty, homelessness, mental illness and substance abuse.