This commentary originally appeared in The Dallas Morning News on March 23, 2017.
During the last Texas legislative session, lawmakers passed a much-needed criminal justice reform, empowering families and education administrators to address unauthorized school absences for juveniles rather than the criminal justice system. Authored by Rep. James White and Sen. John Whitmire and signed into law by Gov. Greg Abbott, HB 2398 decriminalized truancy in Texas.
Prior to this landmark legislation, truancy cases were particularly a problem in Dallas County, even garnering the attention of federal investigators following reports of inequitable punishment. It was clear Texas needed to address its truancy system. This is why the bill was adopted by legislators. Passage was a bipartisan effort driven by the law's common-sense approach to a detrimental, but rather innocuous, infraction. Previously, Texas employed the criminal justice system as the primary response to students skipping school. Instead of addressing truancy through the schools, children were sent to adult criminal court and punished with high fines and, in some cases, jail time.
While Texas most certainly values education, using criminal punishment as the primary tool to ensure school attendance was a misallocation of public safety resources that failed to address the root cause of chronic absences. In passing HB 2398, White and Whitmire sought to remedy this by prioritizing family involvement and school-based intervention over criminal punishment. The law requires schools to implement preventive measures as the first response to truancy. Family members and educators may then work together to identify the reason for chronic absences and form a strategy to get the student back in school. If truancy persists, municipal and justice courts may step in to remedy the underlying issue.
Critics of the law feared decriminalizing truancy would lead to a dramatic drop in school attendance across the state. They argued a lack of criminal punishment for excessive and unauthorized absences would serve as a disincentive for school participation.
Empirical evidence, however, has shown otherwise.
HB 2398 went into effect on Sept. 1, 2015. Texas Education Agency recently released data of statewide attendance for 2015-16, the first school year in which truancy was decriminalized. Despite a steep decline of around 90 percentin the number of court filings for truancy, compared with the 2014-15 school year, attendance essentially remained the same with a slight increase of 0.13 percent.
This data suggests there is no correlation between truancy filings and school attendance. In other words, the lack of a criminal sanction does not encourage a student to skip school. Despite some critics' predictions, shifting to school-based preventive measures did not wreak havoc on the public education system in Texas. The sky did not fall. In fact, in addition to flat attendance numbers, academic achievement standards also remained largely unchanged following the enactment of HB 2398.
And once again, the smart-on-crime empirical evidence supports Texas leaders' common-sense approach: While truancy is a problem that should not be ignored, it is best addressed through family involvement and school-based intervention.