Our chronic truancy problem won’t be solved by heavy-handed penalties

Clark County has a problem: The students don’t want to go to school. 

It’s hard to blame them. I don’t like loud, crowded places either. Would you voluntarily spend time in classrooms overflowing into the hallways? Would you voluntarily spend time in those same hallways, filled to the brim with other students jostling to their lockers, talking loudly enough to overcome their collective shuffling and chatting? How much would someone have to pay you to do that to yourself, day in and day out? 

Which reminds me…

Clark County has a problem: The teachers don’t want to go to school.

These problems tie together. They have been an expensive catastrophe in Clark County for a long, long time, and, for Nevada, it goes a long way toward explaining our abysmal statewide education rankings. Our statewide chronic truancy rate is 19 percent — a full 5 percent higher than the national average and only 3 percent lower than Clark County’s. If we assume that Clark County’s student population is 73 percent of the state’s student population (a reasonable assumption because 73 percent of all Nevadans live in Clark County) and do a bit of algebra*, we learn that the truancy rate in the rest of the state is below 11 percent, and well below the national average. 

Another way to look at this: at least one out of every 10 Nevada students, no matter where they live, are chronically refusing or failing to attend school. That’s still not good, even if the situation is far less dire outside of Clark County than it is inside of it. What can we do about it? And what should we do about it? 

The distinction between can and should is important for this particular problem because there’s a lot that the government can do, and has done in the past, that has proven disastrous in hindsight. Libertarians have been complaining about compulsory school attendance for nearly forty years now, not because Libertarians are against children going to school (except for a few loud exceptions, we’re really not) but because the government making something compulsory strongly implies that the government will apply significant penalties if it is not done to the government’s satisfaction. 

For a petty example of what “compulsory” means when carcerally enforced, consider administrators marking straight-A students as “truant” because they’re playing piano with elite musicians in Europe instead of attending public school. For a less petty example, consider that Kamala Harris’ presidential campaign was (hopefully) finished once Democrats were reminded that she proudly jailed parents whose children didn’t attend school, as well as marijuana users and the wrongfully convicted.

What if the government didn’t have the legal power to compulsorily require school attendance? How might it improve school attendance? One possible answer could be provided by the for-profit higher education system.

Now wait — before you close this browser tab in a fit of pique at the audacity of suggesting there’s a positive example of anything to learn from the for-profit higher education system, consider this: Like public primary schools, for-profit colleges (and, at the time, only for-profit colleges) were required by the Obama Administration to take attendance and reduce chronic truancy to justify receiving federal funds. Unlike public primary schools, colleges enroll adults who aren’t legally compelled to attend class. So, if they can’t jail college students (or their parents) for failing to attend class, what can they do?

I got to witness first-hand how one for-profit college in particular addressed their federal mandate because, a few years back, I worked for the Career College of Northern Nevada. What was the solution they came up with? 

Communication. Lots and lots of communication.

First, some background. This particular for-profit college’s education model was to provide accelerated instruction; instead of teaching a class during a three-month semester, they would teach each class over the course of six weeks, with each week consisting of four days of instruction. Consequently, if all went well, each student would graduate in, at most, a year and a half (some programs were even shorter) instead of the usual two or more years most community college students take. 

However, as a consequence of this accelerated pace, missing even a single day of class meant missing a substantial fraction of the total class time. Missing a week meant missing nearly 20 percent of the total class time — as far as the federal government was concerned, if a student could pass a class while missing that much class time, what was the value of the class? Why should the government provide student loans or grants to students that attend such clearly worthless courses?

Speaking as someone who missed far more than 20 percent of some of my college classes and passed them anyway, I’m just thankful nobody thought of this line of reasoning when I was going to college — but I digress. 

With all of that in mind, the college came up with a policy. Each time a student missed a day of class, their class instructor was required to contact the student after class. This contact wasn’t allowed to be a fire-and-forget email blast; the student had to respond in some fashion, or the instructor had to demonstrate they tried everything within reason (a call, text, and email, for example) to reach the student. If a student was absent for three days in a class (consecutively or otherwise), the student would have to meet with a dean or assistant dean about their attendance. If a student missed five days of class, the student would fail the class and would have to re-enroll in order to receive credit. 

This policy, I will note, was not particularly popular with anyone. Instructors (and I was one, on occasion) loathed contacting every absent student after class and recording the results of each contact. It was tedious, bothersome, and got in the way of grading, tutoring, or otherwise preparing for class. Students, most of whom were not fresh out of high school, also didn’t appreciate being pestered, especially if they were absent for perfectly reasonable reasons like a personal or family illness. 

On the other hand, retention and graduation rates were much higher than Truckee Meadows Community College, which only graduated 30 percent of their students in 2012. CCNN’s tiresome, troublesome, bothersome process helped produced a graduation rate that was nearly twice as high. 

Do I think that Nevada’s teachers should call every absent student’s parents in their mythical “off time”? Having grudgingly done that work myself, I wouldn’t wish it on my worst enemy. However, as it’s rather unlikely that the Legislature is going to overturn NRS 392.040 anytime soon, we must consider solutions to chronic truancy that are actually available to us. This means adopting a position of hope and optimism — hope that the government will refuse to exercise the carceral powers that it has assumed for itself, and optimism that our government will consider other, more voluntarily-minded methods to improve chronic truancy rates. 

After all, prison is rather tedious and bothersome, too.

*  .73(22%)+.27x=19%

    16.06%+.27x=19%

    .27x=2.94%

    x=10.88%

David Colborne has been active in the Libertarian Party for two decades. During that time, he has blogged intermittently on his personal blog, as well as the Libertarian Party of Nevada blog, and ran for office twice as a Libertarian candidate. He serves on the Executive Committee for both his state and county Libertarian Party chapters. He is the father of two sons and an IT professional. You can follow him on Twitter @DavidColborne or email him at david.colborne@lpnevada.org