Under new law, truancy is not criminal

Texas Appleseed, a statewide social advocacy group, has researched truancy in Texas and lobbied for a change in the law in this year’s legislative session.

The group found that more than 115,000 truancy cases were filed in 2013 under the law that said chronic absence from school could be treated as a criminal offense. That’s more cases than all other states combined, the Texas Tribune reported in a story published Sunday in the Star-Telegram.

Appleseed found that more than 1,300 students were arrested for truancy and truancy-related charges in 13 counties: Brazoria, Harris, Williamson, El Paso, Cameron, Denton, Hidalgo, Nueces, Montgomery, Travis, Tarrant, Collin and Fort Bend.

The Tribune reported that in Dallas County since January 2013, at least 22 students have gone to jail for failing to pay truancy fines. Of those, eight requested jail after a judge determined that they had the ability to pay their fines.

A report form Buzzfeed, an Internet news site, reported this year that at least 1,000 Texas students have been ordered to jail for truancy.

That’s harsh, but some people believe that the only way to keep some kids in school is to apply criminal penalties for excessive absence.

Thank goodness the Legislature disagreed. Lawmakers this year eliminated criminal court hearings and stints in adult jail for repeat truants.

They also required schools to do more to address attendance problems and allowed court involvement only as a last resort.

“You’re fixing to lose a lot of children, absolutely,” Mike Cantrell, a Dallas County commissioner, told the Tribune. “Attendance will go down, and the dropout rate will go up.”

If that happens, it will be tragic. But state Rep. James White, who authored the truancy law reforms in House Bill 2398, sees the issue clearly.

Truancy is not a criminal act, he told the Tribune, and we shouldn’t make it so just because some people believe that’s the way to keep the dropout rate from going up.

Opponents of the new law make one good point: Requiring schools to do more to address attendance problems will cost school districts money. The Legislative Budget Board acknowledged that point but could not put a number on it.

That includes costs to either hire a truancy-prevention facilitator or to add these duties to an existing employee, as well as the costs of adopting and carrying out truancy-prevention measures.

The new law goes into effect in September. The Legislature should review its costs and effectiveness when lawmakers convene again in 2017.