The hidden truancy crisis

State Attorney General Kamala Harris addressed a gathering of California newspaper publishers last week in Sacramento, and shared a smattering of disturbing and revelatory statistics about a crisis in education that has received relatively scant media attention.

In one study, said Harris, 94 percent of San Francisco murder victims turned out to be high school dropouts. Nationwide, 82 percent of all prisoners are high school dropouts. Buried in those statistics, hidden in plain sight, is a simple conclusion: dropping out of school can be a prison sentence, if not a death sentence.

And a leading indicator of drop-out probability is the truancy rate of elementary school students.

Which is where the under-reported crisis is hiding.

In the 2012-13 school year, 29.6 percent of California elementary students were truant. That was close to 1 million kids officially reported being absent or tardy by more than 30 minutes without a valid excuse on three occasions in a school year.

And truancy estimates from a sampling of California School Districts indicate the true numbers are even higher, with more than 250,000 elementary school students missing more than 10 percent of the school year. And an estimated 20,000 elementary students in California schools missed 36 days, or more, during the school year. And that’s a formula for failure.

In Sonoma County, according to the study commissioned by Harris to explore the problem and propose solutions, truancy in the 2011-12 school year stood at 11.9 percent, or 4,967 students. The figure for Sonoma Valley wasn’t available.

Beyond the cost in wasted lives, said Harris, is the cost in wasted money. According to research conducted for the Harris report, California school districts leave $1.4 billion a year “on the table” because of truancy, since school funding is based on daily student attendance rates.

But that’s not the end of the accounting. Add in the costs of incarceration, lost productivity and tax revenue, and school dropouts cost the state an estimated $46.4 billion a year.

Here are some the other telling statistics from the Harris study:

First graders with nine or more total absences are twice as likely to drop out of high school. And the greater the truancy, the lower the level of literacy. It is “beyond debate,” said Harris, that if students aren’t reading at grade level by the end of the third year, “they will drop off. They will literally drop off and disappear.”

And high school dropouts are 2.5 times more likely to wind up on welfare than graduates.

On the other side of the ledger, a 10 percent increase in high school graduation rates would theoretically reduce murder and assault rates by 20 percent. That means 50,000 additional graduates, 500 fewer murders and 20,000 fewer aggravated assaults each year.

As cost-benefit ratios go, keeping kids in school looks like one of the best investments anyone could make, ever. But, oddly, Harris says, California is one of only four states that do not track elementary school truancy. Clearly, that needs to change.

All of these facts and figures are woven into a comprehensive report titled, “In School, On Track,” available at oag.ca.gov/truancy.

It’s worth a read by every educator and every parent and, in fact, everyone who cares about this state’s future.

Thank you Kamala Harris.