SALT LAKE CITY — Lawmakers changed their plans Tuesday for a bill that would have eliminated the class B misdemeanor penalty for parents of truant students.
The bill now sets up a process leading up to a class C misdemeanor, which carries potential jail time, as the maximum penalty for parents whose students are repeatedly absent without a valid excuse.
Lawmakers said the bill in its new form is a better balance between parental rights and children's right to education, however supportive the parents may be. The overall intent is to encourage better dialogue between schools and parents, according to Rep. Eric Hutchings, R-Kearns, who proposed the substitute.
"We have given huge amounts of leeway," Hutchings said. "I'm truly hopeful that if we have the ability to have parents sit down with the folks that are helping them educate their kids and just talk it out, we'll resolve the vast majority of these."
SB45 as substituted would direct schools to issue a notice to parents if their child accumulates five unexcused absences. If the truancy continues, the parents may be issued a citation, which may carry a fine but doesn't appear on their criminal record.
If the child's unexcused absences continue further within the same school year, the penalty becomes a class C misdemeanor to the parent. The bill also enacts the same penalty if parents neglect to either enroll their child in school or register them for home schooling.
The previous version of the bill removed the current penalty of a class B misdemeanor for excessive student absences. It also prohibited schools from using performance data of truant students in the evaluation of their teachers.
Provisions for teacher evaluations are no longer included, but lawmakers advanced a separate bill Tuesday that would remove year-end assessments from teacher evaluations.
Hutchings said he hopes educators will be flexible and understanding in working with parents as they implement the statute, if the bill passes the Legislature.
"The intent is very straightforward. If a family, for instance, wants to take an extended family vacation," Hutchings said, "and it takes 10 days to do that, they have the legal right to do that. They can absolutely do that as long as they communicate with the school."
Even in such cases, some lawmakers said the bill still gives too much leeway. Rep. Carol Spackman Moss, D-Holladay, said the penalty under current law gives schools a way to motivate parents and connect families with social services when needed.
"The fundamental problem with this bill is we're not looking after kids," Moss said. "We should be doing no harm, and it takes away some of the tools that schools have to get kids in a better situation so they can learn."
Bill sponsor Sen. Alvin Jackson, R-Highland, said he approves of the amendment, but the underlying question of whether public education should be compulsory is still unanswered.
"This, from Day 1, has always been, to me, about what the proper role of government is. And I don't think government was meant to be in a position of force or compulsion," Jackson said.
The bill now goes to the House floor and then back to the Senate for approval of Tuesday's revisions.