That's true in Atlanta, where families are still swamped by unemployment and foreclosures from the busted housing market, says Jessica Pennington, executive director of the nonprofit Truancy Intervention Project. "Since the economic downturn, the state budget is shrinking and schools are dealing with the same problems and lot less resources," she said. "In the past two years, we're seeing families we wouldn't have seen before. Construction workers who haven't worked in two years. Lots of middle-class families who lost their houses and moved to apartments. The stress level in the home is high, kids are acting out, and parents are struggling with sustenance issues. Kids missing school is not such a priority. They are dealing with keeping the lights on."
There are no accurate nationwide data on truancy in part because states employ different definitions. California considers a child truant after three incidents of either unexcused absence or being late 30 minutes or more. Chronic truancy is missing 10 percent of class--or 18 days--during the school year. Texas defines truancy as missing three full or partial days in a four-week period, or 10 days in six months.
But may education advocates say districts should be looking into the deeper reasons for chronic student absences. "If what matters is attendance, it matters how many days you miss for whatever reason," said Robert Balfanz, of the Center for the Social Organization of Schools at Johns Hopkins. Balfanz co-authored a May 2012 study that estimates chronic absenteeism at 10 percent to 15 percent among U.S. public school students, with highest levels among poor students of all racial and ethnic backgrounds. "Chronic absenteeism... is how poverty manifests itself on school achievement," Balfanz said. "It isn't an argument for making truancy criminal."
The Truancy Fine Factories
Tyler M., 16, and his mother stepped up to Judge Sholden's bench in the Garland, Texas truancy court that same May morning. Sholden read the charge: 12 unexcused absences, a first offense. The teen pled guilty and the judge hit him with a $195 fine. Stung by sticker shock, Tyler asked, "Why do I have to pay a fine?"
"It costs $450,000 to run this courtroom. Who's going to pay for it?" an annoyed Sholden said. "Do you think the taxpayers of Garland should pay for it?"
The economics of truancy enforcement are boldly on display in Texas' courts. From 2005 to 2009, truancy cases filed by public schools in the Lone Star state grew annually, from 85,000 to 120,000. Truancy courts are the traffic courts of public education, processing hundreds of parents and students daily in assembly-line fashion--even during summer months. The Dallas courts alone handle an average of 35,000 cases a year, and their revenue is eye-popping: just over $2 million in FY 2009 and nearly $1.8 million in FY 2011. Truancy court was founded in 2003 because the problem of unexcused absences was overwhelming the juvenile court system; now Dallas has five truancy courts, each with its own judge and staff. "They've developed a whole system in Dallas that has to feed itself to justify its existence," said Deborah Fowler, deputy director of the legal advocacy group Texas Appleseed.