Absent For Too Long: Urgently Addressing California School Truancy

Thursday, January 25, 2018
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A quality public education is the right of every child and the foundation of every community. A good education is the best path out of poverty and will provide every child with a chance to succeed in life. Yet in Los Angeles less than 30 percent of students meet state standards in math; less than 40 percent of students meet state standards in English. Only one-third of LA Unified School District’s 2015/16 graduating cohort met the standards to apply to California’s public universities. Another 25 percent did not graduate.

Simply put, the status quo is not good enough and is failing California’s children.

It was this challenge that prompted the creation of the Los Angeles Unified Advisory Task Force to help Superintendent Michelle King and her team make changes. Made up of volunteers with experience in education, nonprofits, government, business, and labor, the task force will provide recommendations and support to the district in its efforts to make progress on a number of issues including attendance, student achievement, and budget issues. Although it is the role of the board of LA Unified to set strategy and establish policy, there is much work to be done at the operating level to accelerate the pace of change.

What we’ve observed so far is that attendance matters.

If kids aren’t in school, they can’t learn. Students who attend class more often do better in school, and students who are chronically absent—meaning they miss at least fifteen days of school in a year—fall behind. Children who are chronically absent in kindergarten and first grade are much less likely to read at grade level by third grade. If students cannot read at grade level by the end of third grade, they are four times more likely to drop out of high school.

The financial impact of student absence is significant as well. In California the vast majority of revenue school districts receive from the state is tied to student attendance. If a student is absent the entire learning environment suffers as funding is reduced. If every child in LA Unified attended one more day of school, the district would have approximately $30 million more each year to invest in the classroom.

In the Los Angeles Unified School District, more than 80,000 students (14.3 percent) were chronically absent in school year 2016. If you add in the 17.9 percent of students who missed eight to fourteen days, almost one-third of LA Unified students missed significant amounts of school.

This is more than a California problem, by the way.  The US Department of Education estimates that as many as six million student will miss fifteen or more days of school. That’s about one in seven students nationwide. In that report chronic absenteeism rates are highest in high school; other research indicates that students in early elementary grades also experience high rates of absence from the classroom.

Reducing absenteeism is a significant challenge for which there are no simple solutions. Students and families face real and significant barriers that prevent students from making it to school, including inadequate transportation, health issues, and other conditions related to living near or below the poverty line.

Our task force has recommended a multifaceted approach to address the problem, including broad-based outreach to students, parents, and the community, as well as targeted approaches that support the unique needs of individual students and families.

First, America’s second largest school district (with K–12 enrollment of nearly 600,000 students) needs to improve the effectiveness of what it is already doing. LA Unified currently spends $40 million on twenty-seven programs related to attendance but lacks the ability to measure the efficacy of these programs. It needs to increase accountability for existing programs and redirect resources to the programs that work. 

Second, LA Unified needs to engage the whole community so that every parent, student, and neighbor knows why attending school is important. Our task force will help the district work with community and business leaders, sports and entertainment figures, and civic groups to spread the word that kids belong in school.

Third, the district should use some common, but effective, campaign tactics—direct mail, text messages, phones banks, and neighborhood canvassing—to target at-risk students and their families.

Fourth, the district should provide individual schools with cash incentives when they reach their attendance goals. The principals at these schools can use the money how they see best to improve their schools.

Finally, LA Unified should provide more one-on-one counseling to students and families most in need.

The above approaches should be tested as pilot programs, targeting a relatively small group of schools and students, so that LA Unified can measure the effectiveness of each approach. Our task force, on behalf of private philanthropy from the community, will provide half of the funding and oversight for the programs; we will also work together with the district to help provide transparency and accountability. The programs will be measured against the status quo and each other. When we find what works, we will help the district roll out the initiatives throughout the district.

LA Unified cannot meet these challenges on its own. It will take committed and engaged parents, educators, and the entire community. Attendance matters: let’s start working together to make sure every kid gets to school.


California has had a truancy law in effect for nearly 145 years. Should Sacramento lawmakers decide to further explore absenteeism in Golden State classrooms, they won’t have to look far. In the most recent school year, 14.8 percent of all Sacramento County students missed at least one-tenth of their classes, a rate higher than all but two of California’s twenty largest counties (Sonoma and San Joaquin being the leaders—or laggers—depending on one’s perspective). It’s not as dire as another capital city on the East Coast, where about 25 percent of public school kids are absent each year. That prompted Boston public schools to place “I’m In” stay-in-school posters on approximately three hundred buses and subways trains citywide. One problem: someone didn’t do their homework correctly. On one poster, featuring a tenth-grade student, the word “sophomore” appeared without the second “o.” The moral of the story: stay in school . . . and learn how to spell.