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What is chronic absenteeism? Utah school board says it needs consistent definition to improve data collection and target resources

Critics say lawmaking on truancy, absenteeism encroaches on parental rights. Education officials say locals want guidance on the point

Critics say lawmaking on truancy and absenteeism encroaches on parental rights, but education officials say locals want guidance on the point.
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SALT LAKE CITY — What’s a valid excuse for missing school in Utah?

Current state statute considers mental or physical illness, a family death, approved school activities or those permitted under an individualized education program or accommodation plan as valid excuses to not be in class.

But what about a once-in-a-lifetime family trip to Europe, which could arguably serve an educational purpose?

That’s where things gets messy.

The Legislature’s Education Committee approved draft legislation Wednesday intended to clarify Utah’s law on truancy and school absenteeism, said Rep. Lowry Snow, R-Santa Clara.

Utah law establishes valid excuses that school districts and charter schools must allow, but the draft legislation gives school districts and charter boards “the flexibility to add other things,” Snow said.

As Rep. Steve Waldrip, R-Eden, explained, state law on school absence establishes a “mandatory minimum standard that LEAs (local education agencies) are obligated to follow ... they can add to it but they can’t take away any of these excuses.”

The draft would leave it up to local school boards, charter school governing boards or school districts to determine what they would also consider valid excuses.

Rep. Adam Robertson, R-Provo, said Utah has some extremely large school districts.

“It seems like that’s not the best group for determining other valid excuses. Could that be possibly put at a lower level, for example at a principal level or somewhere else? This seems like this is very burdensome,” he said.

Under that scenario, 100 schools in a district could conceivably create their own policies, Snow said. “I think that could be problematic, but I understand what you’re saying,” he said.

Robertson said he believes it would be best left to local control because school-level administrators are closest to the situation.

“I have some personal experience with this. My senior year of high school, I broke all records for most days absent from school. I also graduated at the top of my class. They were going to refuse me graduation. That was absolutely unacceptable. I’d learned the materials — clearly, top of my class — and it was not acceptable. I want this put at a local control level. I don’t want to see this at levels where it is stuck at a level of bureaucracy and rules. I’m not OK with that,” he said.

State Deputy Superintendent Patty Norman said the Utah State Board of Education’s strategic plan acknowledges that some students master content faster than others. As such, personalized teaching and learning is one of four goals of the state board’s strategic plan.

The plan envisions “engaging them (students) where they’re at, providing those opportunities for them to learn in a different way,” and providing them resources and time to support their studies, she said.

Maryann Christiansen, executive director of the Utah Eagle Forum, said if a child is excelling in school, “they don’t necessarily need to be in a seat at school. Sometimes a parent has a better plan for them and experiences they receive outside of school are sometimes more valuable than what they’re doing in school that way.”

Under current law, “there are three ways a school can excuse my child and no ways I can excuse my child except illness and death, and that’s kind of irritating to me. I think parents should have more control than that, so I urge you not to tighten truancy. Let parents have control of how their children receive their education and their life experiences.”

Sen. Kathleen Riebe, D-Cottonwood Heights, said of greater concern is children who are chronically absent and struggling in school.

“As a classroom teacher, the kids that are absent that are two years behind, they only fall further and further behind. Those are the people we really need to support. ... In my schools, we actually have our social workers go pick up some kids every once in a while because it is so important for these kids to be in school,” she said.

According to the State School Board, poor attendance affects whether children can read proficiently by the end of third grade. By sixth grade, chronic absence is a leading indicator whether a student will drop out of school.

The proposed legislation calls on schools and districts to report annually to the State School Board data on absences, those with and without a valid excuse.

“With that lack of consistent definitions, any data that is coming in is not good data for us to use to identify necessary support and resources,” Norman said.

Corby Eason, student support and prevention specialist for the state board, said Utah does not have a statutory definition for chronic absenteeism.

“Most states across the nation do have a definition for chronic absenteeism,” he said.

The committee voted to support the bill, with three members voting in opposition, among them Robertson.