Monday, June 20, 2011

Family trips = truancy? Rent seeking schools punish parents for family travels

A story in the Dallas News published last month ("Texas truancy law offers guidance for some, loopholes for others," May 16, behind their paywall) gave an absurd example of how Texas truancy laws are being misused.  According to reporter Jessica Meyers:
Leila and Frank Pate returned from an extended Christmas vacation in Italy to a court summons. They’d prepared for the travails of travel with young children. But the Frisco couple didn’t envision it leading to a misdemeanor charge and a label of criminal negligence.

“We’re criminals because we took a vacation to see family,” said Leila Pate, who wanted her second-grader and kindergartner to visit ailing relatives in the farthest stretches of southern Italy.

She informed the school district about the trip and packed a bag of class work. The kids practiced their Italian. They received approval for two of the 10 planned absences.

The summons came before the jet lag ended.

The district said the children’s attendance reports showed an unacceptable number of days missed. State law requires schools to prosecute when students skip or arrive late 10 or more days within a six-month period or three or more days within a month.

“We’re looking at [the order] and going, ‘This is just absolutely bonkers,’” said Frank Pate, who runs several businesses with his wife. “This is about money for them.”
Anybody who thinks those kids didn't learn more traveling in Italy than they would have spending that time in school is a fool and a philistine.

Meyers notes that the county and school districts split and $80 fee for each truancy charge, plus "Districts have extra incentive to act diligently because they receive funding based on student attendance." The only loophole to avoid this "crime": Some parents actually withdraw the student from school before such trips then re-enroll them when they return to avoid criminal charges.

It's absurd that the law equates kids playing hooky from schools with their parents taking them on a planned family trip, criminalizing both. A bill passed this session allowing the fee to be waived if it would cause the family economic hardship, but another much-needed fix, at a minimum, would be to accommodate parents who choose to take their kids out of school for short stints because of family travel plans, deaths in the family and other contingencies based on the parents' decisions as opposed to youth skipping school on their own. That's an absurd and pointless story, reinforcing my sense that for school districts this law is more about the money than it is ensuring kids get a good education.

See related Grits posts:


Gretchen said...

It's absurd that the law equates kids playing hooky from schools with their parents taking them on a planned family trip, criminalizing both

How about if the planned family trip involves everybody staying at home watching Spongebob Squarepants? Or, for that matter, going to Italy and watching it there?

I'm not saying that legally penalizing either one is the right thing to do. But it's ridiculous to declare that a family vacation is by definition educational whereas truancy is not.

Gritsforbreakfast said...

I didn't say EVERY family vacation is "by definition" more instructive than school, that's you caricaturing what I wrote. But a trip to Italy is surely more educational than what those kids would have learned in their 2nd grade/kindergarten classes, even if they spend their days watching cartoons in Italian.

More to the point, the purpose of truancy laws supposedly is to keep kids from playing hooky, not to prevent parents from deciding what's best for their kids.

Anonymous said...

What is even stupider that that?
Juniors and Seniors in Hich School selflessly invested in their future take a day off of school to visit potential colleges where they are planning for many years in the future. Many of these colleges don't always schedule orientations or campus tours on weekdays. The high school is only focused on the money for that day as opposed to the future career aspirations oftheir students. I continue to hear many students disaplined for truancy because they were visiting a college.

Cat said...

During Christmas of my senior year, my dad had emergency open heart surgery in a city 3 hours from where I lived. He died 2 weeks later (as was predicted by his doctors), never having left the hospital. I missed the first 10 days of school after Xmas break because I chose to stay with him until the end.

At that time the rule was automatic failure for 8 or more days absent. You could file an appeal to the school board - but the kicker was they only allowed appeals at the end of the school year. This meant you had to finish out the year - not knowing if your appeal would be granted or denied. Luckily mine was granted the day of graduation ceremonies.

I guess we were even luckier that it was still the dark ages - before fines were implemented to pad the city's coffers...

Kenneth D. Franks said...

This is crazy, really.The children most likely learned much more from their travel than being in school on these days. It was not truancy in this case and I'm sick of the policies that have been implemented where there is zero tolerance even when the parents tried to get assignments in advance and took their children on a trip that might be a once in a lifetime experience.

Anonymous said...

In the US what percentage of kids drop out of school? Our dropout rate sets us apart from other countries. It was believed that truancy is connected to dropping out. Maybe we should be permissive about truancy. How do we feel about our extremely high dropout rate?

Kirk said...

Why don't they ask for a jury trial? You think a jury of 6 or 12 is going to convict parents for taking such a trip? Fat chance. And the cost of prosecuting such a case would cause the district and county to reconsider the mindless prosecution and their "zero-tolerance" policies.

Parents who cop a plea and pay the fines are enablers.

William said...

Bottom line, the government is looking for more and more ways to close budget gaps by criminalizing everything they can and tacking on absurd fines.

"Fixing" the shortfalls by further increasing the hardship on the citizens they are bound to protect. It's government out of control. Just imagine if they focused their efforts on figuring out where they are wasting all this money they are alrady getting...

Gritsforbreakfast said...

10:55, first, I don't consider it "truancy" when the kid is out with the parents' full knowledge and permission on a family trip. Truancy is the kid choosing to skip school. So this post doesn't advocate being "lenient on truancy," just not expanding the definition to mulct more money.

Besides, Texas dropout rate is astronomical UNDER THIS POLICY! Being this strict arguably promotes dropouts, because once a kid is gone more than a few days, the financial incentive is to simply withdraw from school rather than rack up criminal penalties, especially for poor families. Punishing a family for taking their kids abroad to visit grandma does nothing to prevent dropouts, it's just about rent seeking.

Anonymous said...

We definitely have to find a balance between families taking trips and families just not taking their kids to school. I know a family that just doesn't feel like taking their kids to school, so they miss. The kids each had accrued around 25 absences just after Christmas break. It was the parent's decision, but obviously there needs to be prosecution in that case. But the case of the Italy trip should not be prosecuted. We just have to find a balance that is not so aggressive to those that truly are not being negligent.

Gritsforbreakfast said...

7:52, I'm curious, if you're going to prosecute the parents you describe, what incentive do they have not to just pull their kids out of school altogether? That's apparently the "loophole" (read: unintended consequence) that families use who want to take their kids on vacation.

Anonymous said...

Solution to this problem. HOME SCHOOL YOUR KIDS!

The education possibilities are far better than anything they will be taught in public schools, they kids are more likely to learn more at their own pace, and parents have the peace of mind that their kids are not being marginalized into the public school's neo-con christian agenda.

Mine have been homeschooled for 2 years now. The only problem I have with it is, why didn't I do it from the beginning.

Public schools are not only the gateway to higher percentage drug usage, but also the HIGHEST percentage life failure rates. Nothing is taught there for kids to own or run a business, only to become a good little worker drone.

Anonymous said...

Another reason to separate school and state or at least get our grandstanding legislators to do something useful by stripping these absurd criminal penalties from the books.

What other school related 'criminal' activities give school districts a share of the spoils? Does every cite written by a school cop and run thru jp court garner a kickback?

Anonymous said...

As a member of the military who is currently deployed to Afganstan, when I get back home, I plan on going on a long family trip, which will have my daughter out of school for a few weeks. If that is the case where I live, I think we will have some trouble.

The Toddfather said...

I have had to deal with this THREE times already! I hate this law on so many levels. the most annoying thing for me is that the schools count your child absent for the whole day if they are counted absent for ONE class!

I also ran into it with an extended Christmas vacation of four days so they could travel to see their mother in another state. Plane ticket prices were just too prohibitively expensive to get any closer and they hadn't seen their mother in so long I hated to cut it short. So I worked with the school, told them well in advance and made arrangements for my daughter to take her tests early. I also wrote a note when they returned, which the school flat out refused to accept! I understand the idea of the law but the practice of it is seriously flawed. Like most laws created by a bunch of politicians trying to look good, it was ok in spirit, but a nightmare in reality. While I hate that anyone else would have to go through this I am glad to know I am not alone.

Frank and Leila Pate said...

Thanks for all your comments. We just found this today. We did go to trial. Found guilty by 6. Appealed that , represented ourselves. On appeal, DA had records frozen to block us from using them as evidence. Even thru that we had the jury deadlocked in deliberation. The judge order them to continue deliberating. At 6 hours of deliberation we objected to ordering the jury (5th time) back to deliberation as it seemed excessive and a mistrial was warranted by law. The judged warned us that he was in charge of the court, and that we were at worse facing a fine, "let's not add jail time to it "!
We flinched, my plead a deal my wife dismissed, and I paid $1 dollar fine and 6 months unsupervised probation.
Our kids have been homeschooled since the beginning of the fall 2011 school year, and we have traveled 14,000 miles since January doing business and seeing national monuments, historic Indian reservations, Amish farms, museums galore, etc,etc. we love being with our kids all the time, their grades are higher then when in public school and their ahead of where they would be grade wise by one year. It all worked out as it should.

Unknown said...

Update for all interested.

Kids are no back in school on AZ. Home schooled last three years.
Testing showed them a year ahead of other kids. They were bumped up a grade. Leila was happy! She was their teacher last three years.

Unfortunately though kids are learning bad habits from other kids related to food and behavior. So were fighting that battle now!
We as a family have many food allergies, and keeping the kids free of their friends snack sharing is a handful.