STATE OF OPPORTUNITY. Can Kids in Michigan Get Ahead?
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This special reporting project wrapped up in May 2017. Read more.

New law tying cash benefits to truancy missing definition of truancy

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Governor Snyderrecently signed into a law a set of rules about absences from school. These laws don’t affect every kid and family. But families living in poverty who get cash assistance from the state can lose those benefits if their children are truant. The issue is that this new law, like the state Department of Health and Human Services policy it is based on, doesn't define truancy.

The decision of how many and which kinds of absences will put a family's benefits at risk will stay at the school level. "There's a lot of confusion, period." says Peri Stone-Palmquist, who runs a group called the Student Advocacy Center. She’s not a fan of this new law. A quick glance at different attendance policies bears out what Stone-Palmquist says is a lot of variation in how many absences a school will tolerate before a truancy finding. Some districts count things like tardiness and suspensions toward a truancy finding. Others are more lenient, either on paper or in practice.

It makes sense for Michigan to get serious about truancy

An effective approach that would improve school attendance would benefit Michigan kids, especially those with an "at risk" label attached to them. The consequences of truancy are well documented to be seriousand include dropping out, getting kicked out, or being pushed into the school-to-prison pipeline. 

Michigan's truancy prevention strategy however, seems to be a grab-bag of sorts. This is the story in many states, where punishment aimed at parents and incentives aimed at kids are used interchangeably and without a lot of data about results. On the "stick" side of the equation are criminal prosecutions for truant students or their parents, and threats to remove cash assistance or other government benefits.

Another approach being used in some schools across the state takes more of a "carrot" kind of approach. In about 300 schools across the state is a DHHS program called Pathways to Potential

Penny Wilson works for the program out of Anne J. Kellogg Elementary school in Battle Creek. Her work is on display as soon as you walk into the building. She has taken over an old trophy case to plaster the message: “Missing school means missing out.”

We work really hard to give our children incentives and parent’s incentives," Wilson says. She says some of those rewards include ice cream socials and swimming parties. She says the school has seen improved attendance this past year.

But perhaps what is making more of a difference is what Wilson spends most of her time doing, and that is helping families in poverty with whatever barriers are keeping their kids from getting to school. 

Wilson says some parents just don't seem to care, or to value education. But that's not the majority, she says. "There’s a lot of things going on," she explains. "Some of the most common barriers that we see here at our school is transportation." 

The attendance policy in Wilson's district is pretty strict. Wilson says that 10 absences, excused or unexcused, will result in a student being considered truant, and "justifies a closure of cash assistance."

DHHS spokesperson Bob Wheaton says the department is supporting legislation to come up with a common definition of truancy. Peri-Stone Palmquist's organization is part of a coalition that has also drafted model legislation. 

While school is out, there's an opportunity to clarify the law. But it looks like there is very little chance of that happening before school starts up again in the fall.

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