Wednesday, February 29, 2012

A Compromise in the Legislature

A compromise on the truancy bill was advanced today on the floor of the Unicameral. The compromise will remove the mandatory filing to the county attorneys of kids with excused absences! It is a significant step forward in reaching our objectives, which have been from the beginning the restoration of local control over attendance policy, and protection of kids with excused absences, while narrowing the focus on kids with unexcused absences.

This compromise is just that - a compromise. It does not implement the many solid ideas presented by Sen. Fulton in LB1165 (which was not advanced out of committee), but it has broad appeal and a good chance of moving forward in the legislature.

When County Attorney Don Kleine spoke to the NFF at Creighton Law School on February 15, he talked about the 900 cases referred to his office that required no action and said that there is no need to refer cases to the county attorney when all of the absences are excused under school district policy.

Monday we went to the Capitol with this simple message: Children with excused absences should not fall under the jurisdiction of law enforcement and that senators should partner with Sen. Fulton to fix Nebraska's truancy law in 2012. It is essential that schools not be forced to refer these students to county attorneys when those students are working with their school districts and their absences are excused.

The hard work of passionate parents and citizens who have called and written senators numerous times for weeks on end, parents whose children were adversely affected and who braved the harsh judgments of total strangers to come forward to tell their stories to the press, and the many dedicated leaders who would not give up should be proud of how their efforts have changed the discussion in Lincoln and moved the ball forward.

I believe that many of the senators we spoke to Monday listened. Sen. Fulton was contacted by senators who wanted to get this law fixed and discussions of possible compromises began. This morning Sen. Fulton and Sen. Ashford met and came to a compromise that was introduced on the floor by Sen. Langemeier as AM2245. Many senators argued in favor of the changes and said that the 2010 truancy law had been an affront to parental authority and the sacred freedoms of families.

The amendment essentially states that school districts are free to choose which cases they referred to county attorneys when the absences fit into the description in Ashford’s box ‘A’: “absences are due to documented illness that makes attendance impossible or impracticable or are otherwise excused by school authorities.” They are not prevented from referring these cases, but they are not required to either.

At the very least this amendment would put the onus for what is excused and unexcused back on school district administrators and school boards, who are more susceptible to public pressure and democratic redress. If the districts exercise this power aggressively and it results in abuse of the law, the local districts can be held responsible by the communities who govern and fund them.

The downsides are still troubling. For example, if a student has only one unexcused day but reaches the 20 day threshold, schools would still be required to refer. However, they could choose to check box 'B', which indicates that the school is working with the student. This is particularly a problem in school districts who have changed their school district attendance policies in the wake of the 2010 law.

Some districts removed important grounds for legitimate excused absences expecting that the law would provide them with political cover in the face of parental pressure. In these districts even a handful of days for family travel or athletics outside the school curriculum would result in a filing at the county attorney if the overall tally reached the magic 20 day mark.

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.

In general, 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. Lincoln Public Schools has been by far the most aggressive, as they have removed nearly every grounds for excused absence barring school activities and illness.

If the amended truancy law passes and these district policies are not altered to reflect the "good-old Nebraska common sense" the Governor promised would be used by school and state authorities, there will be dire consequences for families in these districts. 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. This process is designed to work on consensus between elected school boards, administrators, and parents; and parents are going to have to organize to make sure that reasonable distinctions for excused and unexcused absences are established in their district policies before the start of school next year.

Inscribed over the main entrance of the Capitol are the words, “The Salvation of the State is Watchfulness of the Citizen.” 75 years ago, George Norris, a "New Deal Republican”, fathered a new government in Nebraska we know today as the Unicameral. He said the two-house system was outdated, inefficient and unnecessary. When skeptics raised concerns that the unicameral would not preserve appropriate checks and balances to prevent abuse of power, Norris argued that the people would serve as a check upon the possible abuse of power by their elected officials with the right to vote and petition. Norris said, “Every act of the legislature and every act of each individual must be transacted in the spotlight of publicity."

This should be a sobering challenge to every Nebraskan citizen. The Unicameral is a great departure from the collective wisdom of the founding fathers and puts the full power of governing into the hands of only 49 legislators with few checks and balances to restrain it. Only with the constant vigilance of the citizens of our state can freedom be guarded. This year we have been educated in this principle and I hope it is not a lesson that will be soon forgotten, because we have many more battles to fight to restore the proper balance between the honor of parental authority and school district authority over attendance.

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.

There is work ahead if families are to regain the rights lost by the passage of the 2010 attendance law. The NFF will continue to inform parents in our state and remind them that "Eternal vigilance is the price of liberty."

1 comment:

  1. What great news! Thank you to Nebraska legislators who are listening and working to respond to the concerns of citizens.

    I would add that people who want to ensure reasonable attendance policies in their school districts need to go to their school boards ASAP, within the next 6 weeks. With this being an election year, you have the opportunity to make your case to your school board and sort out which of your local board members are willing to support reasonable policies, and which aren't, and then run challengers against the unreasonable ones who are up for reelection. If you wait until next school year, or even just until the end of this one, it will be too late for that.

    Get involved at the local level! Now it REALLY matters!