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Make Parents Pay for Kids Who Miss School To Curb Chronic School Absenteeism

New York Post

May 4, 2024

The COVID pandemic has ebbed, but one of its most damaging long-term effects has not.

Chronic school absenteeism — collateral damage from students accustomed to staying home for alleged online learning — persists across the country.

In New York City, a stunning four in 10 students — some 353,000 — were chronically absent, for the last full school year (2021-22).  The national figure is 22%.

It’s hardly a way to combat the learning loss of school lockdowns, which, per the National Assessment of Educational Progress, set back math and reading proficiency by two decades, especially for low-income students.  

New York has tried a carrot approach to push parents to get their kids up and out in the mornings. 

In 2022, Gov. Hochul authorized some $214 per child in back-to-school aid for families on public assistance.

The city schools deploy a legion of “attendance teachers” to “work with parents, schools and city agencies to find solutions to a child’s attendance problem.”

The problem has gotten worse but it’s not new. In 2013, Mayor Bloomberg started a Truancy Reduction and Public Safety center — to little avail.

It’s time to remember that a child’s school attendance is first and foremost  a parent’s responsibility — and a stick as well as a carrot can be deployed.

Under the state’s last Republican Governor, George Pataki, this was understood. 

For two short years, beginning in 1998, the state authorized “learnfare.”

Households receiving public assistance whose children were chronically absent could see their payments docked $60 a month — in order “to prevent children from dropping out of school and to improve the attendance of children in school.”

Households on public assistance account for some 148,000 city school kids, per the most data compiled by the Citizens Committee for Children of New York. 

And sending one’s kids off to school is in keeping with the name of federal welfare law, the Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Act. 

What’s more, “learnfare” has been tried elsewhere — with positive effects. In Wisconsin, where “learnfare” originated, reductions in public assistance ranging from $60 to $190 a month “increased school enrollment by 3.7% and school attendance by 4.5%.

For students with the highest risk of dropping out, Learnfare increased school enrollment by 25%” per the National Bureau of Economic Research

Learnfare is the law today in liberal Massachusetts, which shows that such an approach does not have to be draconian.

Chronic absence there leads to families being placed on “learnfare probation.”  

If that’s followed by four or more unexcused absences in a month, only then is the child’s portion of public assistance cut off. 

Three months of chronic absence leads to a referral to state social services.

Students with disabilities are exempt. 

Incredibly, even schools in Mexico get the point. Its “Progresa” program — aimed at keeping kids in school and discouraging child labor — required school attendance as a condition of receiving an “education stipend” in some 500 poor rural areas. 

An NBER study, found again that money talks:  “childhood exposure to Mexico’s Progresa program raised average educational attainment by 1.4 years. Girls were 30% and boys 18% more likely to obtain some secondary education.”

Tough love perhaps —but, as in Wisconsin, showing positive results. 

The school absenteeism problem is not limited to low-income households nor to those on public assistance. 

Wealthy, self-indulgent  families are taking their kids out of school for extended vacations.

Still, Nat Malkus of the American Enterprise Institute has found that chronic absence especially afflicts lower-income homes.

Some 36% of Hispanic students and 39% of Black students, he finds, are chronically absent. 

Writes Malkus: “Chronic absenteeism increased for all district types, but rates were highest in districts with low achievement and higher poverty, affecting over one in three students.”

Sadly, New York City is such a school district. 

Childhood poverty is an imposing obstacle but need not be a lifetime barrier to success.

The so-called “success sequence” — finishing high school, getting a full-time job or post-secondary education, and postponing child-bearing until after marriage — is a recipe for overcoming disadvantage. 

But that sequence starts with finishing  school — and not attending means not graduating.

Indeed, the very habit and discipline of class-time is the first step to success. 

We all have a stake in an educated workforce.  There’s no good reason our toolkit should not include bringing back “learnfare.”