Chronic Absenteeism: Two States, Two Approaches

June 17, 2015

Educators and parents alike agree: Keeping kids in school matters. When kids miss school, their learning suffers. A recent study found that kindergarteners with the highest absenteeism rates were not likely to catch up to their peers’ test scores by 5th grade. Additionally, while the reasons for absenteeism are many, health is a consistent and important factor of keeping kids in schools. A recent survey of students in Texas shows that health-related issues may account for as much as 57 percent of absences; and in Oregon, chronic health issues was considered the single most common issue affecting middle school attendance rates.

This is why developing strategies to reduce student absenteeism is so important to our schools.

However, we also know that too frequently absenteeism becomes a discussion where parents are blamed for not getting their children to school. And too frequently, the discussion around student absenteeism turns to a discipline issue or even worse, becomes a criminal activity.

This past year a number of states have been grappling with the challenge of keeping kids in school. From Texas to California to Indiana, states are trying to set policies to reduce absenteeism. But the approaches that these states have taken, are as varied as the states themselves.

For example, last month, the Michigan legislature passed what it called the “Parental Responsibility Act.” This bill would cut off aid to families in need if a child was chronically absent from school. Remember, low-income communities already bear the burden of health disparities that cause higher rates of school absences. Asthma rates in Detroit hover near 30 percent and are even higher in low-income communities of color. In many cases, students are missing multiple days of school due to chronic diseases, lack of access to healthcare or even family health issues. Cutting off benefits to these children would do nothing to address the problem, while potentially causing devastating harm to these families.

As the Michigan League for Public Policy said, “This bill won’t get kids to school. However, it is certain to push more kids deeper into poverty, making it even more difficult to get to school.”

We agree. Keeping kids in school shouldn’t be punitive. Rather, we believe that we need look to the underlying reasons why kids are missing school, and address these issues.

So here in Illinois, Healthy Schools Campaign worked with advocates and legislators to pass a Chronic Absenteeism Commission. This bill is not about blaming parents, rather it is about understanding and addressing the underlying causes of why students are absent. When signed, this law would establish an Attendance Commission that “…shall identify strategies, mechanisms, and approaches to help parents, educators, principals, superintendents, and the State Board of Education address and prevent chronic absenteeism.”

Of course this is only an early step in a long approach to developing strategies to address chronic absenteeism. But if half or more of missed school days are due to health-related issues, we believe that we need to approach our education policy in a way that supports student health and wellness. This means we need a system that identifies students at greatest risk for dropping out and provides assistance with their specific barriers. It could mean increasing access to counseling services, asthma management plans, or even helping a student get a warm coat in the winter. These are the types of interventions that can do what we all want — keep kids healthier and in school.

Breaking the cycle of chronic absenteeism is not an small or insignificant challenge, but it is one that requires a thoughtful approach, rather than a reactive, punitive measure.