Personal Freedom

The Criminality of Truancy from Public School

Sam Giles, a young student in Georgia, missed a few days of school beyond what the law considered acceptable, and as a result, his mother was arrested. Julie, who works as a substitute teacher, notes that “Sam originally had what they consider 12 unexcused absences, 6 are allowed per year, so he had 6 more than is acceptable, but the doctor reissued 3 excuses that Sam didn’t turn in, so basically I am being arrested for THREE days.”

Her Facebook posts further clarified that young Sam was performing just fine in school:

Commenting on Julie’s arrest over a few days of skipped school, the Superintendent commented, “It’s important for these children to be in school and I think the courts recognize that.” This absurd result is the logical consequence of compulsory education laws.

Would a parent in Utah face a similar consequence?

According to Utah’s compulsory education statute, a “compulsory education violation” notice is sent to a student’s parent if that student has been “absent without a valid excuse at least five times during the school year.” After being served with such a notice, it is a class B misdemeanor—which carries up to six months of jail time and a fine of $1,000—for the parent to “intentionally fail to meet with the school authorities” to discuss the “attendance problems,” or to “intentionally fail to prevent the school-age child from being absent without a valid excuse five or more times during the remainder of the school year.”

The operative question then becomes, what is a “valid excuse”? According to statute, a valid excuse is an illness, a family death, an approved school activity, an absence permitted by a student’s Individualized Education Program (for children with disabilities), or an excuse approved by the local school board. In short, opting to go on a family vacation, job shadowing somebody in a field of interest to the child, or simply deciding to do something important to the child or family other than school on any given day is an “invalid” excuse and therefore may lead to criminal enforcement of the law.

By way of comparison, other class B misdemeanors include: assault, driving under the influence of alcohol, prostitution, voyeurism, and unlawful sexual activity with a minor.

This criminal consequence for the parent is a relatively new feature in Utah law, introduced in a 2007 bill by Representative Eric Hutchings. The bill passed the legislature unanimously. Previously, the focus was entirely on the child, subjecting children to juvenile detention.

The Utah State Office of Education strongly supported this consequence for parents in a memo they issued in support of this legislation:

The focus is on COOPERATION between parents and schools. With increasing federal and state emphasis [on] student achievement—and commensurate punishments and rewards for schools—schools MUST have the tools to compel attendance and the law must give certain unresponsive parents incentives to work with schools on student attendance issues.

Of course, this law doesn’t deal with cooperation, but rather coercion—fining and incarcerating parents who prefer flexibility and freedom as opposed to restrictive impositions from an institution that is supposed to serve them, rather than enslave them, is anything but “cooperation.”

And this brings us to the real reason behind continued support for compulsory education—the financial incentives inherent in the public education system. As the USOE noted, with high-stakes testing, school grading, federal funding contingencies, and other pressures placed on schools, it’s reasonable for them to want to ensure compliance with students, and their parents, without whom they cannot maintain their employment, secure grants, and receive the funding they desire. When the funding schools receive is based on the number of children attending the school, it’s no surprise that school administrators want to compel children to be sitting in their class every day, such that when their number is tallied, the requisite funding is received.

Think of it like compliance costs for corporations, or the corporate income tax itself. Many people believe that these target the companies to which they apply, but in reality the costs are passed on to the consumer. They become a hidden tax and an additional burden upon the end recipient. So, too, with school mandates—in the end, the mandate falls upon parent and child, and freedom is obliterated in the process.

In the most recent legislative session, Senator Al Jackson sposored legislation that would have eliminated the criminal penalties placed on parents for their “habitually truant” children. The bill was finalized very late in the session and as a result did not have a hearing or vote, but Senator Jackson intends to re-introduce the legislation for the 2016 general session.

Julie Giles is not an anomaly—her experience is the logical consequence of compulsory education laws, and the frightening reality of how a government that is supposed to protect our rights has become one of their chief violators.