Governor’s Chronic Absenteeism Task Force – Part Three – Vital New State Roles

By James C. Sherlock

A compilation from

I have found in 18 years of reporting on education in the Commonwealth that each school, each school division and each region is to some degree its own ecosystem.

Taking the example of chronic absenteeism, an individualized assessment of causes could be attempted:

  • if a single school‘s chronic absenteeism can be adjusted statistically for differences in its demographics (race, ethnicity, economic status, English learners, IEPs, etc.) to its division norms, and
  • if that school is a statistical outlier from its division good or bad.

But those are very big if’s because of the complex algorithm that would be required for comparing.  And the results would apply only to that specific school.

I have sometimes compared divisions‘ statistical performances on absenteeism and SOL pass rates against state norms, but usually at the extremes.  There are too many variables to sort among the bulk of them.  At the division level, the variables are as great as at the school level.

Regional differences are there, but causes are hard to pin down beyond differences in demographics and cultures.

That said, and to some degree for that reason, I offer two new state roles for improving school attendance:

  1. marketing, which is either not now done at all or done ineffectively, to increase parents understanding of the value of school; and
  2. investigations and enforcement, which are done sporadically across the state.  That is because of both the time and expertise investigations take and current laws that require schools to involve the court system in enforcement.

Those recommendations are not budget neutral.  This is a budget year.  They are tailored to draw Democratic support.  The time for them is now.

Given the time necessary to prepare proposals, it will likely take a special session to address them.

The chronic absenteeism crisis, appropriately designated by the Governor, rates one.

Marketing is first and foremost a science.

Some would say you cannot sell a useless product.  Then, reconsidering, they would remember the pet rock.  Proving marketing is a science.

But school is anything but useless.  We need to make school better, but it is absolutely crucial to human development.

Marketers strive to create value in the minds of consumers for a service or product at a level that they feel it is more important than other things on which they might spend the same time or money.

Marketing is too important, time consuming, expensive and complex to be left to individual schools or divisions.

Schools play a crucial role by optimizing the services once parents and kids show up.  But marketing in necessary to change the minds of those who have decided it is not sufficiently attractive and worthwhile to show up.  And that is the target audience with which to address chronic absenteeism.

Professional marketers build a strategy, define target audiences, conduct market research and marketing consumption research (where are the eyeballs?), develop messaging, conduct a campaign, assess how it has worked and adjust.

Marketing for schools in the Commonwealth involves very different regions and various demographics.  State data show that the biggest ROI will come from changing the school value judgments of parents of minorities, the poor, English learners and students with disabilities.

Those are the largest populations of kids most often chronically absent (spreadsheet above) and, simultaneously, the ones who can least afford to miss school and the vital non-academic services, including meals, that school offers.

Marketing recommendation.  I suggest the state hire a marketing company  to develop a statewide message and execute regional and demographic messages in an integrated campaign.

The state will wish to hire a support contractor to develop an RFP, assess bids and help the state assess contractor performance after award.

Investigations of chronic absenteeism are also a science.  They need to be conducted professionally and with compassion for the children.

The General Assembly has added significant specialized support staff – more counselors, psychologists and social workers – to the schools.  It matters internally, where there is much for them to do, but it has not yet mattered statistically to chronic absenteeism.

Like marketing, investigations and enforcement of chronic absenteeism should be changed to a state responsibility.

In this case the lead agency should be the Virginia Department of Social Services supported by the schools in addition to the organizations with whom it already has professional relationships.

“VDSS is one of the largest Commonwealth agencies, partnering with 120 local departments of social services, along with faith-based and non-profit organizations, to promote the well-being of children and families statewide.

We proudly serve alongside nearly 13,000 state and local human services professionals throughout the Social Services System, who ensure that thousands of Virginia’s most vulnerable citizens have access to the best services and benefits available to them.”

There are DSS offices everywhere.  They support over 2 million Virginia citizens, including a full range of services to children. They already oversee foster care, which is a source of significant chronic absenteeism.

The community schools movement is attempting to set up what are in the Virginia context mini-DSS offices at every school.  That is not going to happen soon if ever, and need not happen for DSS to help.

Investigations recommendations.  Define in law levels of absenteeism that cause automatic referral to DSS to take pressure off of schools.

A first step is investigations after case referral will be home visits.  That is, of course, what each DSS office Child Welfare Unit already does.

If they are to investigate chronic absenteeism, and investigate it before a child’s school year is lost, they will need additional staff and assistance from the schools’ specialized staff.

That usefully and economically will include the recently increased numbers of school social workers operating under DSS authority to handle the increased case loads .

Enforcement.  Enforcement is very controversial, and tends to draw a Democratic/Republican split because of the “school-to-prison pipeline” issue.

There is a way to break that impasse.

Enforcement recommendations.

   First, let DSS handle enforcement to avoid the association of schools with the justice system.

   Second, change to state law to make educational neglect a crime under child abuse and neglect law and the administrative code.

Hold adults not the child responsible for chronic absenteeism if the child is below a defined age and one or more adults are found to be in control of the child.  Change references in law and regulations to truancy to chronic absenteeism where appropriate.

   Third, make provisions in the law for appropriate treatment of child refusal, which is a real problem, that does not initially involve the justice system.

Spacial session.  Schools are overwhelmed and should be relieved of marketing, investigations and enforcement actions related to chronic absenteeism.

The changes I have recommended are both the right things to do and are tailored specifically to draw Democratic support.

Special Session recommendation.  The schools are overwhelmed.

They are not capable of broadly effective marketing to improve attendance and should not try to do it.

They actually are trying to do things like chronic absenteeism investigations and court referrals that neither Democrats nor Republicans even really want them to do.

I recommend the Administration and General Assembly craft the required bills and budget provisions and call a special session to deal with them.

Democrats did just that with their massive changes to education laws and related budget changes in 2021.

They should support doing it again.

Update:  This was updated on Dec. 18, 2023 to align with this section of the book on this subject to be published before the end of the year.  Some information was moved both to and from this section, but all of it was retained in the series.