Capitol: Should truancy laws be less strict?


February 14th, 2012

Lincoln, NE – How strict Nebraska’s truancy laws should be, and how much state aid schools should get, were discussed in hearings at the Capitol Monday.

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Under a law passed two years ago, schools are required to report to the county attorney when a student is absent 20 or more days in a year, regardless of whether or not the absences are excused. The idea was to cut down on truancy. But parents who testified at Monday’s hearing said the standard is too strict. Christine Bates, a mother of three children in Millard Public Schools, was among them.

Nebraska lawmakers heard testimony from parents Monday, who said the state's truancy laws are overly-strict. (Photo by Robyn Wisch)

“Why should I feel anxiety about winter and the possibility of my children being absent from school because of the common cold or the stomach flu? Why should we miss family reunions, Thanksgiving or Christmas with grandma? Where did common sense go?” Bates asked. “I’m very sad that we are becoming a country where micromanaging our everyday lives by government is acceptable. Nebraska’s attendance law has gone too far and taken away the natural rights of parents of our state. Please restore what we have lost,” she told senators.

Parents at the hearing said they feel like they’re in trouble when schools tell them the county attorney has been notified. But the law does not require county attorneys do anything when they get reports from schools, and Hall County Attorney Mark Young said that if the schools indicate there are reasons for the absences, he takes no action.

Education Commissioner Roger Breed, speaking for the State Board of Education, recommended that the law be left as is. Breed said the number of students absent 20 days or more had fallen from nearly 22 thousand two years ago to just over 18 thousand last year. And he said those who were absent fewer than 20 days were significantly more likely to pass state proficiency tests. “It is clear that the attention of school authorities, the attention of parents, the attention of county prosecutors — county attorneys — on school attendance is making a difference,” Breed said.

Sen. Avery wondered if the current amount of state aid to schools is sustainable. (Photo courtesy Nebraska Legislature)

The Judiciary Committee has several different proposals before it, including exempting absences that are excused by the parent from counting toward the reporting requirement, making the requirement optional, or requiring school districts meet with county attorneys to determine if any further action is needed.

In another hearing, the Education Committee took testimony on proposed changes to the school aid formula. Largely because of growth in ag land property values and slower growth in school spending, that formula calls for less state school aid next year than was projected when the Legislature adjourned last June. Education Committee Chairman Sen. Greg Adams of York said the latest estimate is for a decrease of about 28 million dollars.

Sen. Galen Hadley of Kearney, along with 18 other senators in the 49-member Legislature, is sponsoring a bill that he said would keep school aid at the originally projected amount of $880 million. “We haven’t hesitated to adjust the formula to decrease state aid to a desired amount, so why not use the same concept to increase state aid to a desired amount?” Hadley asked.

Other senators, including Bill Avery of Lincoln, wondered if the amount of state aid projected into the future was sustainable. Adams introduced a bill to try and cut down on that future growth, currently projected at more than 30 percent over the next two years. That proposal was opposed by many of the same districts that supported increasing next year’s funding, including Lincoln Public Schools. That led Avery, who’s been in the Legislature six years, to object. “In all of those years except for last year, LPS came out looking pretty good. The first time that LPS takes a hit, this is what we get. And I will tell you the truth, it’s not making me very happy,” he said.

Lincoln Associate Superintendent Mark Shepard replied that the district has supported senators’ previous efforts to meet the budget crunch, but suggested that the problem of future funding could be addressed later.

And in political news, Omaha state Sen. Steve Lathrop announced that he will not run for the Democratic nomination for U.S. Senate. University of Nebraska Regent and Center for Rural Affairs Director Chuck Hassebrook is scheduled to announce Tuesday that he will be a candidate. Lathrop said he’s thinking about running for governor in two years.

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