We’ve come a long way from the days when the truant officer was a feared figure. In the wake of the pandemic, chronic student absenteeism has hit 40 percent in the New York City public schools—and they’re not the only ones with a problem. A McKinsey study found that, nationwide, “2.7 times as many students are on a path to be chronically absent” compared with the pre-pandemic rate. Though the rates have fallen for higher-income students, they have worsened for those of low income, to the point that “an additional 1.7 million to 3.3 million” high school students will likely drop out, and even those who remain will lag educationally. Such are the costs of school closures.
New York schools chancellor David Banks set the modest goal of reducing absenteeism from 40 percent to 30 percent by June, but neither he nor Mayor Adams has mentioned a tool that state law provides them: financial penalties for the parents of truant children. The state’s compulsory education law makes all parents responsible for ensuring that their kids attend school. A first offense comes with a maximum fine of ten dollars or ten days in jail, but each violation after that could result in a fine of $50 and 30 days in jail. It’s a state law, but it’s up to local authorities to enforce it.
The potential financial hit of such penalties is even greater for those whose households receive public assistance. The 1998 “learnfare” law, still on the books, empowers school systems to reduce public assistance for households whose children accumulate five or more unexcused absences in any school quarter. Five absences means “the social services district must withhold $60 from a household’s public assistance grant for three consecutive months.”
The evidence of a widening educational achievement gap means that overlooking learnfare is harming those whom public assistance is meant to help: children in poverty. These students make up a significant portion of the public school population; prior to 2017, for example, more than half of students qualified for free school meals because of low household income. The McKinsey study reports that students in majority-black schools are now a full 12 months behind those in majority-white schools, widening the achievement gap by about a third. Because minority families are more likely to live in poverty, making public assistance contingent on school attendance could help narrow it.
Enforcing learnfare would be no easy task in a system that can barely even settle on a mask policy. The Department of Education bureaucracy would likely have difficulty linking the public assistance and food stamp rolls with attendance records, themselves notoriously spotty. But Banks could make a difference simply by announcing that learnfare enforcement was looming. Economists call this the “signaling effect.” That proved the case with the 1996 federal welfare-reform law, which imposed time limits and work requirements on households receiving public assistance. Even before the law took effect, caseloads began to drop after Bill Clinton announced his intention to “end welfare as we know it.”
As absenteeism has emerged as a nationwide problem, learnfare and parental financial sanctions for truancy are not getting the consideration they deserve. Instead, there’s been more emphasis on bribing students to attend class, using gift cards and dance contests. There’s no reason to use only carrots and no sticks. New York should not only reemphasize the learnfare law but also increase the sanction from its outdated 1998 level and include food stamps as part of it, as well. (New York is not the only state with a learnfare law. Before the pandemic, Massachusetts would deduct $100 per month from child-welfare assistance because of school absenteeism.)
Mayor Adams has signaled his concern about minority children who cannot read and write at grade level. Absenteeism will only worsen those problems. Learnfare can help address them.
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