Legislation would improve attendance at public elementary schools

Posted: February 27, 2017 | Education and Cultural Affairs, Senator Libby
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Sen. Libby’s bill extends truancy law to students as young as 5, protects parent’s rights

AUGUSTA — A bill by Sen. Nate Libby, D-Lewiston, would give Maine schools the tools they need to ensure all students, regardless of their age, receive the education they need and deserve.

The bill — LD 96, “An Act To Improve Attendance at Public Elementary Schools” — would allow school districts to extend enforcement of truancy rules to 5- and 6-year-old students enrolled in public school, while protecting the rights of parents to choose which school environment, and what age, is appropriate for their children. It received a public hearing Monday in the Legislature’s Committee on Education and Cultural Affairs.

Truancy has a deleterious effects on a child’s education. Chronic tardiness or absenteeism affects graduation rates, proficiency and academic performance. Maine’s truancy law currently doesn’t apply to students until they are 7 years old, leaving schools with no way to ensure that 5- and 6-year-olds are attending classes and building the solid scholastic foundation necessary for later educational success.

“Schools all over the state, have struggled to address chronic absenteeism,” said Sen. Libby. “In Lewiston, the school department employs a truancy officer who checks in with students and their families to address the underlying issues that cause truancy. The school does everything it can to help, but is powerless to work with families and students during the foundational period of education, kindergarten and first grade. This bill would allow districts to ensure our youngest students receive the education they need to succeed in school for their entire academic career.”

Previous attempts to extend truancy laws to all public school students were opposed by homeschool advocates for inadvertently requiring school enrollment for young students. Sen. Libby’s bill addresses this concern by explicitly stating that the truancy law for 5- and 6-year-olds only applies to those whose parents make the affirmative decision to enroll their children in public school. It also creates a 45-day window, starting with the first day of school, during which a parent may withdraw their child’s enrollment, without question. After 45 days, a parent could cancel their child’s enrollment after consultation with the local school board.

“A parent’s right to make decisions about student attendance in public school, or in private school or in home school, must be preserved. This bill makes no significant change in that regard,” Sen. Libby said.

Lewiston schools superintendent Bill Webster testified in support of Libby’s bill, telling the committee that 25 percent of pre-K students, 20 percent of kindergarten students and 15 percent of first grade students are chronically absent.

“We are working hard to improve these numbers,” Webster said. “One of our efforts is to engage community partners to assist families struggling to get their children to school. Families who are unsuccessful, however, are likely sealing the fate of their children to be not only unsuccessful in school, but also unsuccessful in life. In fact, the low graduation rate at Lewiston High School is significantly impacted by dropouts who developed poor school attendance habits in elementary school.”

Dr. Robert Hasson, the acting commissioner of the Maine Department of Education, has previously testified in support of extending truancy laws to students age 5 and 6, saying: “truancy at this level is a big problem for students already enrolled. Allowing that truancy to go unchecked could lead to bad habits for both students and parents and cause problems throughout a child’s time in public school. Early learning is essential and learning that part of the battle is showing up is a valuable lesson.”

LD 96 earned the support of Lewiston schools superintendent Bill Webster, the Maine Education Association, Maine School Management Association, which represents superintendents and school boards around the state.

The Education and Cultural Affairs Committee will hold a work session on the bill in the coming weeks, before sending its recommendation to the full Legislature.