School Attendance Is a Right and an Equal Opportunity Issue

by James C. Sherlock

I wrote a column yesterday on chronic absenteeism in Virginia’s schools. The article has generated confusion among some readers about the obligations of parents and those of the state in getting children to school.

Some wonder if absenteeism is even the problem that the data say it is. And what about … (fill in the blank)?

But as a society, we have already decided. Truancy is against the law. For good reasons. Attendance is a right and denying it denies equal opportunity.

And adults in both homes and government offices are denying children that right.

A right and an equal opportunity issue. School attendance is recognized internationally under the Convention on the Rights of the Child:

Article 28.

1. States Parties recognize the right of the child to education, and with a view to achieving this right progressively and on the basis of equal opportunity, they shall, in particular:

(e) Take measures to encourage regular attendance at schools and the reduction of drop-out rates.

Parents and governments shall get them to school and keep them in school as a right of the child issue. And an equal opportunity issue.

Who is a child? Let’s go back to first principles, if they indeed still exist.

America and most other nations have chosen the age of 18 as our societal rule for the achievement of majority and the rights and responsibilities that come with adulthood.

Let’s consult Webster:

In human context, the term adult has meanings associated with social and legal concepts. In contrast to a “minor,” a legal adult is a person who has attained the age of majority and is therefore regarded as independent, self-sufficient, and responsible.”

Human context: independent, self sufficient and responsible.

As a society, we have chosen to base our standards, and thus our laws, on when we consider a person to be self-sufficient and responsible. That is the overweening standard, provable because we also make legal allowances for physical adults who are not considered self sufficient and responsible.

I offer two questions that we see raised every day in a vast range of issues relating to children, along with my own answers:

  • Q. Are they not just small adults? A: No
  • Q. Does society at large have an interest in how children are raised? A: Yes, it defines its interests by passing and enforcing a limited number of good-of-society-and-the-child rules as laws.

School attendance – government initiative. The federal Department of Education introduced the “Every Student Every Day” initiative in April of 2019. It offered, of course, a multi-tiered approach to improving attendance.

VDOE’s 12-part presentation on truancy and dropout prevention does not feature:

  • enforcing truancy laws;
  • mitigating child usage of both prescription and illegal drugs;
  • establishing order and discipline in chaotic and violent schools that cause them to be rejected by children and parents.

I find that both strange and dysfunctional.

Human Agency.  There is not yet any evidence, of course, that the government-every-student-every-day initiative will work. COVID intervened. Or that it will be tried.

But there has been human agency in attendance in schools before, during and after the pandemic.

The New York Times, always selective in assigning human agency, ran a headline “The Pandemic Erased Two Decades of Progress in Math and Reading.”

The “pandemic” did nothing of the sort.

It was adult decisions in the public schools that were the causes of:

  • children missing in-person school;
  • badly performing remote learning; and
  • the resulting learning losses.

We know this because we saw other approaches that worked far better:

  • The kids whose parents sent them to private and parochial schools in this state went to school in person long before most public schools reopened without notable health consequences, and avoided significant gaps in their educations. Catholic school kids in Richmond were in school in-person for the entire 2020-21 school year. Kids in Richmond Public Schools were never given that opportunity. Agency.
  • The parents of some 6,000 Virginia public school kids had entered them before COVID into free, full-time virtual public education from online schools with 20 years of experience approved by VDOE. Those kids continued their education throughout COVID relatively seamlessly. Ill-prepared attempts by school divisions and late-to-the-game VDOE to provide full-time remote education largely failed. Again, agency.

I am neither for nor against either of those choices. They are for parents to make. But it is not necessary to agree with either to acknowledge the fact that they worked for kids better than what many traditional public schools chose.

So agency mattered.

Pettifoggery about attendance. Some ask “Isn’t it possible that the data on chronic absenteeism are wrong or differently interpreted across 132 school divisions and over 2000 schools?” Or something.

As if arguing individual data fields will make the problem go away.

Kids have avoided Virginia’s public schools without excuse and dropped out in very large numbers. The discussion is centered on what to do about it.

What if schools are providing bad educations? I sometimes wonder, as has been written by Bryan Caplan, a Ph.D. economist at George Mason University, if the whole system needs rethinking.

[Caplan’s] argument in a nutshell: First, everyone leaves school eventually. Second, most of what you learn in school doesn’t matter after graduation. Third, human beings soon forget knowledge they rarely use.

He makes exceptions for the three Rs. Important exceptions.

Other than those baseline skills, he states:

School is lucrative (for the students) primarily because it certifies, or signals, employability. Most education isn’t job training; it’s a passport to the real training, which happens on the job.

Even if Mr. Caplan is right, and I don’t acknowledge that he is, kids still have to show up. For the three Rs and for the signal offered by the diploma. So, worst case, they still have to be there.

Is there a pill for that? We worry about illegal drugs, but are prescription drugs responsible for some of the truancy?

Allowing doctors to prescribe mood-altering, physical-development -altering and performance-altering pharmaceuticals to kids is dangerous in every case. There are black box warnings even when prescribed on-label. So, risk better be assessed carefully in that light in each case. There is ample evidence that it is not.

And kids don’t get those prescriptions without parental permission.

Overprescribing drugs to children is an epidemic. The New York Times article at that link is a must read. ADHD drugs often open a gateway to a flood of other prescription drugs. Antidepressant use in children is soaring. Off-label uses are common.

A study published in 2020 in the journal Pediatrics found that 40.7 percent of people ages 2 to 24 who were prescribed a drug for attention deficit hyperactivity disorder were also prescribed at least one other medication for depression, anxiety, or another mood or behavioral disorder. The study found more than 50 different psychotropic medicines prescribed in such combinations, and a review by The New York Times found that roughly half of the drugs were not approved for use in adolescents, although doctors have discretion to prescribe as they see fit.

Express Scripts, a mail-order pharmacy, recently reported that prescriptions of antidepressants for teenagers rose 38 percent from 2015 to 2019, compared with 12 percent for adults.

A senior state university official in Virginia told me that upon arrival at his university, far too many of the freshmen are simultaneously using multiple heavy-duty psychiatric drugs.

And, no surprise, they tend to miss a lot of classes.

We have decided, with laws reflecting our decisions, that children must attend school.

Those standards are meant to be enforced by parents and guardians. The laws are to be enforced by truancy officers or the courts on referrals from schools when families or guardians default of their responsibilities.

It is a right of every child.