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Cure California’s Chronic Absenteeism With School Choice

Cure California’s Chronic Absenteeism With School Choice

Paularino Elementary School, of the Newport-Mesa Unified School District, in Costa Mesa, Calif., on Aug. 21, 2023. (John Fredricks/The Epoch Times)

John Seiler

John Seiler

9/5/2023

Updated: 9/5/2023

Commentary
On Aug. 24, EdSource held a video roundtable on chronic absenteeism. The online video lasts just under an hour.
Unfortunately, they didn’t bring up the main solution: More school choice. The real problem is, for many kids, school just is boring. It doesn’t challenge them. That’s only going to get worse with the recent “dumbing down” of math education, which I reported on in The Epoch Times on July 17.
Hedy Nai-Lin Chang, founder and executive director of Attendance Works, led off the discussion, providing context. At the national level, she said, about 8 million kids were chronically absent before the pandemic, about 15 percent. That has doubled. “In California, actually, we more than doubled. We went from 12 percent to 30 percent.” That’s a whopping 150 percent increase.
If you go by grade level, “It was 40 percent of our kindergarteners.” But it’s worth pointing out kindergarten is not mandatory in California. In fact, just a year ago Gov. Gavin Newsom vetoed Senate Bill 70, which would have made it mandatory. He said in his veto message, “With our state facing lower-than-expected revenues over the first few months of this fiscal year, it is important to remain disciplined when it comes to spending, particularly spending that is ongoing.”
Given the state’s nearly $100 billion surplus flipped to a $31.5 billion deficit, mandatory kindergarten isn’t likely until there’s a new surplus.
Ms. Chang also said high school numbers may be undercounted because kids show up for one period, then skip out. Of course, that’s not exactly a new practice, as I remember from my own high school days 1970–73, although I never did it myself.
Groups “disproportionally” affected were Native American, Latino, and black students; two-thirds were Latinos. And there was “an enormous increase” among English-language learners. “Something happened during the pandemic that really affected our ability to communicate with them.” She said she was concerned the belief things would get back to normal after COVID “really was not the case.”
Some solutions were offered by Tom O’Malley, superintendent of Modoc Joint Unified School District in Alturas, which has three schools, one each of elementary, middle, and high schools, teaching 230 students. It’s in Modoc County, the most northeastern county in the state. He said his district is “remote,” and kids have to go 150 miles to Redding to have their braces checked, or for other medical services, which keeps them out of school longer.
Staff and students walk through a hallway at Buena Park High School in Buena Park, Calif., on Aug. 11, 2023. (John Fredricks/The Epoch Times)

Staff and students walk through a hallway at Buena Park High School in Buena Park, Calif., on Aug. 11, 2023. (John Fredricks/The Epoch Times)

As to solutions, he said “we try to immerse ourselves in their lives and really kind of get to the root problem.” That includes having employees “dedicated to working with families and having those conversations.”
Ms. Chang cited successful programs in Connecticut, which found, “Sometimes it’s a light touch” that is needed to connect the student with the teacher. And, “Once a school or a district has over a certain percentage of kids who are chronically absent,” they mobile a special team with a multi-tiered approach. Tier One makes sure “school’s a fun place.” And Tier Two is “support for the kids who need something more.”
Another approach has teachers visit students’ homes. “It’s a fabulous program of teachers doing home visits.” But “teachers were exhausted and tired and didn’t necessarily have the bandwidth. So they used their data to figure out where they needed to expand resources.”
Next came up Ofelia “Sofi” Ryan, of the Association of Pupil Services and Attendance Counselors, to talk about the “techniques” used in the Los Angeles Unified School District. “In L.A., we are child welfare and attendance counselors,” she said. They do “a lot of reviewing data so that we can do the interventions. And as child welfare and attendance counselors we do home visits, whole child assessments, family support, linkages to basic needs or anything that the family may need to ensure that we address all the barriers that are preventing the children from being in school.
“And very importantly, the pandemic opened everybody’s eyes and highlighted child welfare and the need to have students addressing family structure and student needs. Because we learned during the pandemic that many children [didn’t have] an English speaker taking care of them. For example, we had parents who left home at four in the morning to return about 11 o'clock at night because they have two jobs. And pretty much, there is someone that the child may reach for an emergency, but not someone who can supervise and provide support.”
That statement shows how extensively the government has taken over the role of the family in these children’s lives. All California schools also provide free breakfasts and lunches for all students, regardless of income.
Unfortunately, the EdSource panel did not provide more creative ways to increase attendance. The main one would be Arizona-style universal school choice, called the Empowerment Scholarship Program, first implemented this new school year. According to Arizona Capitol Times, “Because the scholarship funds were provided to every K–12 student, children from low-income families and students with special needs have much to gain from educational choice.”
School choice lets parents better fit the school to the student. A kid interested in music, for example, would attend a music-centered school. Doing so obviously would increase attendance above a standard-issue school the student found boring.
In a similar fashion, California should stop impeding the expansion of charter schools, which are public schools largely freed of the complex state Education Code, as I explained in my August 25 article in The Epoch Times, “Los Angeles, Oakland Underfunding Charter Schools.”

Conclusion: Choice Needed

On a personal note, I’m fond of my years attending the public Wayne-Westland Community School District in Michigan from 1960 to 1973. In high school, I missed only three days, all due to illness. But I was bored through most of it. Because my name starts with “S,” I was stuck in the back row. But I never had to do homework at home, because I always finished it in class.
In my senior year, they merged the calculus class I was taking with another, lower-level math class. The great teacher became so exasperated trying to teach two classes at the same time, he quit and went to work at the Ford factory. It would have been so much better if I, and my parents, had the choice of attending a school dedicated to more rigorous academics.
Give kids programs more suited to individual needs, and they’ll be more likely to show up in the first place.
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John Seiler

John Seiler

Author

John Seiler is a veteran California opinion writer. Mr. Seiler has written editorials for The Orange County Register for almost 30 years. He is a U.S. Army veteran and former press secretary for California state Sen. John Moorlach. He blogs at JohnSeiler.Substack.com and his email is writejohnseiler@gmail.com

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