Thursday, April 25, 2013

Texas Truancy Bill and School Choice

A Bill passed by the Texas Senate and now making its rounds through the House combats truancy in an effort to reduce student drop-out rates.

SB 1234, if passed, would increase both the responsibilities and the powers of public school officials in preventing truancy. Violations of the new truancy legislation could result in criminal charges and class C misdemeanor fines of $100.

 SECTION 6.  Subsection (e), Section 25.094, Education Code, is amended to read as follows: 
       (e)  An offense under this section is a Class C misdemeanor punishable by a fine not to exceed $100.

The bill amends current state law by allowing proof of a high school diploma or certified equivalent evidence requiring automatic dismissal of charges, as long as the student can do so prior to his or her 21st birthday.

             (1)  the court finds that the individual has successfully complied with the conditions imposed on the individual by the court under Article 45.054; or 
             (2)  before the individual's 21st birthday, the individual presents to the court proof that the individual has obtained a high school diploma or a high school equivalency certificate after taking a high school equivalency examination administered under Section 7.111, Education Code.

If a student accumulates 10 or more unexcused absences in a 6 month period, school officials are directed to action.

       (b)  As a truancy prevention measure under Subsection (a), a school district shall: 
             (1)  issue a warning letter to the student and the student's parent or guardian that states the number of absences of the student and explains the consequences if the student has additional absences; 
             (2)  impose:
                   (A)  a behavior contract on the student that must be signed by the student, the student's parent or guardian, and an employee of the school and that includes: 
                         (i)  a specific description of the behavior that is required or prohibited for the student; 
                         (ii)  the period for which the contract will be effective, not to exceed 45 school days after the date the contract becomes effective; and 
                         (iii)  the penalties for additional absences, including additional disciplinary action or the referral of the student to a juvenile court; and 
                   (B)  school-based community service; or 
             (3)  refer the student to counseling, community-based services, or other in-school or out-of-school services aimed at addressing the student's truancy. 
       (c)  A referral made under Subsection (b)(3) may include participation by the child's parent or guardian if necessary.

The parents and student are notified and then directed to be assigned to a state juvenile education case manager. That case manager will put the child through the "at risk of drop-out" program that includes a contract. That contract outlines penalties for any further absences as well as obligating how the student will behave. The contract is intended to be for 45 days at a time. Violations of the contract bring a $100 fine as well as referral to the juvenile court system.

 (a)  Except as provided by Subsection (a-1), [On approval of the commissioners court, city council, school district board of trustees, juvenile board, or other appropriate authority,] a county court, justice court, municipal court, school district, or juvenile probation department shall[, or other appropriate governmental entity may: 
             [(1)]  employ a case manager or agree, in accordance with Chapter 791, Government Code, with any entity listed in this subsection or another appropriate governmental entity to jointly employ a case manager to provide services in cases involving: 
             (1)  a juvenile offender who is [offenders] before a court consistent with the court's statutory powers; or 
             (2)  a student, before the student is referred to a court for a violation of Section 25.094, Education Code, who is referred to the case manager by a school administrator or designee for intervention services because the student is considered at risk of dropping out of school, if the student and the student's parent or guardian consent to the referral to the [agree in accordance with Chapter 791, Government Code, to jointly employ a] case manager.

In whole, the law appears as though it will increase graduation rates and reduce truancy. The full engrossed version of SB 1234 sent to the State House is available here.

However, there are some issues the bill does not address that may draw critical attention.

The truancy bill does not adequately address a student removed from a school by parents who desire to home-school their children. With the controversies surrounding CSCOPE in Texas and CCSSI in other states, more and more parents are seeking affordable alternatives to public education. Some parents may see this law as an infringement upon individual natural rights.

The current education law in effect is available here. Reading it over may leave some citizens believing the code outlaws home-schooling and school choice.

SB 1234 does not address or provide for student athletes. Many elementary and middle schools do not have competitive gymnastic teams. If a child were gifted in gymnastics, competed at a national or international level, and were taken from school in order to compete, the parents may find themselves under undo scrutiny under this law, even if the child were tutored during these trips.

In a vacuum, this bill could turn parents exercising their parental rights into criminals. If parents disagree with exposing their child to controversial curricula and decide to remove their child from the school, they could face a lot of red tape plus the inside of a courtroom.

There also exists potential for misuse and corruption by this law. Public schools are finding themselves more and more in competition with home-schooling, charter schools, private schools, and charter schools.

Public schools may start reporting kids who are removed from their control and enrolled into an alternative program. Parents should not have to explain their decisions or choices to public schools or ask their permission in order to provide their own children the education they choose. A vindictive school administrator could easily "lose" the paperwork dis-enrolling the student and bring a bureaucratic and legal nightmare onto the student and his or her parents. 

Texas has yet to pass or enact any education reform that supports school choice. Though it will go far in reducing the drop-out rate, this bill is no exception. True education reform will not happen until school choice legislation is part of that reform.