News Story

With Half of the Students Chronically Absent, New Truancy Law Would Strip Welfare From Families

The Jalen Rose Leadership Academy sets for itself a goal of graduating 85 percent of its students, having 85 percent of its graduates enroll in college and then seeing 85 percent of those students graduate from college. But the public charter school on the northwest side of Detroit may have difficulty reaching those goals when more than half its students were, as defined by the state, “chronically absent” from the classroom.

Figures collected by the state show that 51.5 percent of Jalen Rose students met that definition by missing more than 10 school days in 2013-14, the latest year data is available. That’s a huge increase from previous experience at the charter school founded by basketball star Jalen Rose in 2011. That first year, only 5 percent of students met the state’s definition of chronically absent, but that number jumped to 17 percent in the second year. Unlike conventional school districts, the charter school does not offer transportation for students.

In several Michigan school districts, more than half the students are chronically absent. That is the backdrop for a new state law that will go into effect June 16, 2016. It gives the state the authority to strip welfare benefits from a “program group” — the current term for a household on welfare — in which children miss too much school.

Public Act 56 of 2015, signed into law by Gov. Rick Snyder in June, requires the Department of Health and Human Services to figure out within 12 months how to implement the policy.

That task is complicated by various conditions and exceptions in the new law, a consequence of legislators struggling to find realistic ways to punish a careless parent without punishing the children. In the end, they told the agency to figure it out.

Theoretically, families could lose benefits if their truant schoolchildren were age 15 or less. Minors age 16 or 17 could be removed from the home and placed in foster care or some other alternative, as determined by a court.

If the agency decides to give real teeth to the law, the impact could be enormous given the magnitude of the truancy problem in school districts with large numbers of “at risk” (low-income) students. Two out of three students (67.1 percent) in Detroit Public Schools were deemed chronically absent in 2013-14, and it’s likely many of those missed far more than 10 days. Districts with similar demographics also have high absentee rates, including Benton Harbor (58.9 percent), Flint (52.7 percent) and Pontiac (49.9 percent).

Sen. Rick Jones, R-Grand Ledge, said he supports the law.

“You have to get the parents’ attention in order to affect student behavior,” Jones said.

He said the bill is a wake-up call to parents about their responsibility to get their children to school. Also, Jones said students need to go to school to be successful and parents must have a hand in that.

Gilda Jacobs, the president and CEO of the Michigan League for Public Policy, said her organization doesn’t like the law.

“This is the kind of thing that pushes families deeper into poverty,” Jacobs said. “It’s punitive. It doesn’t properly address what the causes are for the truancy of their kids.”

Jacobs said students may miss school for many reasons, including having to take care of sick parents or siblings, problems with day care, not having shoes, or parents who don’t have access to transportation.

“I really believe this is a knee-jerk reaction to a problem instead of really attacking the problems that are out there,” she said.

Michigan Capitol Confidential is the news source produced by the Mackinac Center for Public Policy. Michigan Capitol Confidential reports with a free-market news perspective.