Blog post

Annette Fuentes asks if truancy laws are really helping

Molly Osberg 6 September 2012

This week Annette Fuentes, author of Lockdown High, continues her work in education justice over at Writing now to address truancy laws across the U.S., the author offers a thorough investigation of the discrepancy between states' intentions and outcomes when it comes to keeping kids in school. Who, she asks rightly, are truancy laws really helping?

Supporters say the truancy crackdown is critical to improving test scores and high school graduation rates, but there's a fiscal motivation, too. With school budgets cut to the bone, every dollar counts, and each absent child represents lost state funding. Some districts get a share of fines levied by the courts, providing an additional incentive for issuing tickets. While a recent study from the non-profit Get Schooled found that truancy cuts across all demographics, those most affected by harsh enforcement are low-income families whose financial struggles can contribute to attendance problems, and students like Marcus Derrick with health problems or learning disabilities, who may require costly educational interventions that school districts want to avoid by punting the problem off to the courts.

There are a number of things that keep kids out of school, writes Fuentes, including chronic illness, disability, sustained medical treatment or, in the words of one interviewee, "sustenance issues."

But with truancy penalties varying widely by district—or even by school —students and parents are faced either with jail time or exorbident fines. According to Fuentes, in 2009 the Texas truancy court system processed over 2 million dollars of such fines, money that was often funneled back into the very court system demanding it.

Yet despite the resources being pumped into the fight against absenteeism in schools, most studies show hard regulations like these rarely, if ever, change students' behavior. Fuentes likens the criminalization of truancy to daytime curfew laws in LA:

Curfews are a popular prescription for curbing crime, but there is scant proof they work. A widely cited 2003 study by Kenneth Adams, funded by the National Institute of Justice, surveyed the research and found little "to support the argument that curfews reduce crime and criminal victimization." Enforcement generates arrests for curfew-related violations, which Adams suggests "needlessly add to the criminal histories of some juveniles.

Visit The Atlantic's website to read the article in full.