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.

  • T. Wetzel

    It seems clear that the murder and incarceration rates are
    related to the drop out rate, and the drop out rate is related to truancy,
    however, a relationship is not causation. It is a leap, based on the article’s
    information, to assume that truancy leads to death or prison. There may be another
    unidentified underlying cause that leads to all the statistics. Perhaps it’s
    time to consider whether the enormous school system in California is capable of
    serving all our youth in its present form, and begin to explore additional
    educational opportunities such as trade schools and apprentice programs.

    • Phineas Worthington

      Thanks for clarifying the difference between causation and correlation. This conclusion would have been patently false 50 years ago when drop outs often went on to succeed. I have thought for years that young boys and men are being grossly underserved by the schools as they are the lions share of drop outs. There are plenty of businesses out there that would gladly jump at the chance to partner with local schools to establish alternatives like work/study or skilled trade training. The primary obstacles in the way of that type of innovation are the teachers unions and labor laws.

  • Dee Test

    So Kamala Harris, who clearly wants to position herself for future political races, held a “spin session”, to force-feed newspaper publishers her latest “message”. And this paper – like the good little party soldier we know it to be – is happy to follow orders, and do its part to indoctrinate the public. So are we supposed to be shocked that there is an association between failure of the school system and failure of the kids’ lives who are subjected to it? Really? I think most of us are intelligent enough to recognize an association. But I think we are also smart enough to know that rates of criminal behavior and violence are also related to a multitude of other complex environmental, social, biologic, and economic issues……and this can not be reduced to a simplistic message about school truancy. Get real.

  • Roberto de Chimpo

    Fascinating Statistics. Trade schools or internships would be great. Kids drop out for a limited set of reasons. The majority of times it is the parenting. For an array of reasons parents fail their children or they lose control. It would be great if the kids were given the opportunity to learn skills that weren’t out of their ability or out the their financial reach. I’m not saying we should cull out the boneheads and teach them bonehead skills. Just making things available for those who do get a glimpse of what life could be for them. Give them the opportunity to be confident in themselves. Sure, some people are just messed up and will end up in the statistic junk pile. But confidence, hope and fulfillment will fix a lot of what ails the youth. Parents being part of the education process can produce a better student and confident person. And the metaphor; anyone can tread water. Swimming gracefully requires practice and guidance.