Thursday, January 19, 2012

Sen. Fulton Introduces Bill to Restore Local Control Over School Attendance

Sen. Tony Fulton of Lincoln introduced LB 1165, which will address the negative effects of the 2010 attendance law. If successful, the amendment will restore the distinction between excused and unexcused absences, ensuring that students with excused absences NEVER fall under the jurisdiciton of law enforcement for “truancy”.

This proposed change is not an attempt to go back to the days when school districts and county law enforcement were, in many cases, failing to intervene early enough to help “at-risk” youth. Instead, the amendment seeks to preserve the original intent of the law - to reduce habitual truancy that sometimes causes academic failure and delinquency - while protecting students whose absences are excused. The proposed amendment would significantly tighten the threshold that allows county-level agencies to intervene by defining as truant a student who is absent five days in one quarter, or ten days in one year, when such absences are “not excused to the satisfaction of district policy” by their parents. The statute is in harmony with the definition of truancy from the US Department of Justice, which is to be absent without permission.

This bill would return local authority over truancy to local school districts, and the families in their community. Together with elected school boards and school administrators, parents can craft common sense attendance policy that will define what types of absences will be excused. These locally-crafted policies can better serve the unique needs of each particular district.

Nebraska's original mandatory attendance law designated this power to local districts decades ago, but the 2010 law removed local district control over referral of students to law enforcement, and gave that authority to the state, which is now requiring all districts to file a report on a student who has missed 20 days, whether the district had excused those absences or not. In this way, school district policy became nearly pointless, as children whose absences were excused under school district policy still found themselves in court.

Parents have long relied on rational and reasonable school district attendance policy, and the common sense discretion of school administrators, and for the most part parents across the state would agree that there were no problems to speak of with their district's attendance policies prior to 2010. For the most part, parents have enjoyed a positive and cooperative relationship with their building principals, who retained the most discretion over whether or not to excuse an absence. For generations, school authorities have honored the authority of parents and their role in excusing their children from school based on their own best judgment.

Unfortunately, many parents have become increasingly concerned with the policy changes made by their school districts in the wake of the 2010 law. What used to seem very simple - excusing your child from school - has become an intimidating, anxiety-causing process, as the attitude of school administrators has hardened and they insist on documentation for nearly all absences, and count even worthy family travel as unexcused. Some districts have taken the law as a challenge to crack down hard on non-attendance in any form. In Millard Public Schools, for example, the district administrators and School Board have gone well beyond what the law requires by removing any discretion principals used to have in excusing students for educational, personal, or other legitimate reasons. In addition, they have specifically prohibited reasons for absence that used to be commonplace.

While the Nebraska Family Forum seeks to restore local control to the state truancy statute, on the tried and true principle that government closest to the people governs best, many parents have legitimate concerns that their elected school boards will not roll back these changes. The proposed amendment only works to restore respect for parental authority if parents hold school administrators accountable, and require that they respect parental authority.

One thing is certain: school boards are elected, they work for the people who elect them, and district policies cannot go into effect until school boards vote for them. School board politics are democracy at work. Under LB 1165, a parent can work to ensure his judgment is honored in the process which sets local attendance policy. This process is designed to work on consensus between elected school boards, administrators, and parents.

If local control is not restored, then a parent’s only hope is that the unelected school district bureaucrats and the county attorney will exercise common sense. Local school boards are the appropriate body in which to address the definition of legitimate absences, set attendance policy, and establish the boundaries between a parent’s authority and a school district’s responsibility.

Should parents be concerned about the level of power that the mandatory attendance law places in the hands of school districts? It’s a good question. If parents aren’t actively involved in the politics of their school district, then they certainly should be. For the few parents who have tried to affect the policy-making in their school districts - to no effect - they may be familiar with the sentiments of a former Millard mom, Autumn Cook, who addressed some comments to school board member Mike Kennedy on the Millard Parent Society Facebook page. She said, “I have the impression that School Board members exert very little influence over the superintendent. It seems that the School Board just rubber stamps whatever comes out of his administration, with only surface questions asked and no real opposition to any ideas whatsoever. If the staff says it’s good, it must be; they're the experts.”

This sentiment is widespread among parents in our state, who are becoming more familiar with the process. It was particularly disturbing to Millard parents who fought hard to get changes to the expansion of the truancy law in 2011, before it was passed. Cook passionately censured her school board - which continued to tell parents to talk to the Legislature, because the new policies were its fault - with these words, “We spent a LOT of time talking to our representatives about this over-reaching law. We traveled to the Capitol in a snowstorm to express our concerns about the expansion of the law in 2011. We held sustained dialogue with our own senators about the issue. We brought our kids down to the Capitol to share stories of what the original law did, and spent the better part of an hour working out an arrangement with the sponsor of the bill that would protect us from outrageous invasion of our families. But that rested on one thing - you! We counted on our local attendance policies being applied, not on having them wiped out and overhauled to put teeth into this threat. We counted on our school boards to have minds of their own, to be able to see the terrifying, unintended consequences of this monstrosity and say, ‘We'll trust the good parents who have raised the good students who have given us our distinguished reputation and leave our attendance policy as is, thank you very much!’”

To be fair, it is hard to expect school boards to be accountable to parents when so few parents voice their opinions to their school boards, whether those opinions are positive or negative. Parents must be informed, active, and vocal in holding their school boards accountable for the policies under which they live. We elect them to protect our interests, but if their constituents do not in large numbers communicate their expectations, we shouldn’t be surprised when they don’t meet them.

Sen. Fulton’s amendment is an opportunity to put government back in its proper order. It is a strong, clear state truancy statute that designates appropriate control over attendance policy to school districts, and the communities who fund and govern them. It allows authorities to reach at-risk students much earlier than they could under the old statute, by requiring students with unexcused absences to be referred to law enforcement much sooner. It ensures that children with excused absences - including kids who are sick, spending quality time with a deployed parent, visiting a sick relative, traveling with family, and pursuing athletic and educational excellence - will not be punished under the law.

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