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SIMMONS: Gray, council AWOL on D.C. truancy

What, precisely, is D.C. Mayor Vincent C. Gray doing to combat school truancy?

D.C. lawmakers have positioned themselves to receive answers Tuesday, when the Committee of the Whole and the Committee on the Judiciary are slated to hold an oversight hearing.

But let's be frank.

Two of the largest beneficiaries of chronic truancy are school systems, which get to keep money whether students are in class or not, and supporters of the status quo, who claim more money is needed to ensure class sizes are manageable.

And know this, too: Enrollment figures are collected early in one school year to help determine how much money school officials want for the start of the next school year.

In sum, the school system always stands to gain while the chronically truant school-age children are likely to end up inside the criminal justice system.

Hence, the council's joint committee roundtable.

So lawmakers should fire up the hot seats.

The problem: According to the D.C. Office of the Inspector General, overall truancy rates rose from 16 percent to 20 percent in school years 2006-07 to 2008-09, then declined to 15 percent in 2009-10. Worst of all, school officials learned this year that the high-school chronic truancy rate is an abominable 39 percent, which means a student has at least 15 unexcused absences.

The excuses:It's the parents and teachers. "Many of our parents aren't able to be good parents, quite frankly, because we failed them as students." That's Chancellor Kaya Henderson speaking, and she also has cited classroom instruction that sometimes wants you to "pluck your eyelashes out."

But hold on. There's more.

Pick an excuse for truancy — poverty, homelessness, transportation, hunger, domestic abuse, pregnancy, disability, family substance abuse, crime victimization, sexual abuse, inadequate clothing, unemployment, the economy, lack of access to health care.

Some real, honest-to-goodness reasons: Student tracking and interagency data-sharing regarding students are practically nonexistent, according to the inspector general.

In other words, the school system does a mighty fine job of counting heads at the beginning of a school year, but in order to ensure their coffers remain flush they do not necessarily need to know whether Raul, Ronica and Robert return to the classroom -- until the start of the next school year.

What a sham.

The solutions: In August, the inspector general reiterated several recommendations to education officials, including exchanging information with police and child-welfare authorities, but school officials rebuffed the proposals.

The Committee of the Whole chaired by Phil Mendelson, includes all 13 members of the council. Yet when that panel meets regarding education, there is no guarantee that all its members are seated at the dais.

There are good reasons why all members, especially those seeking re-election, should be there.

Marion Barry of Ward 8 and Yvette M. Alexander of Ward 7: Two high schools with the highest truancy rates are represented by these two Democrats, and they need to ask representatives of the mayor what detailed plans are in place to address truancy, and what are the detailed results.

Vincent B. Orange and Michael A. Brown: This at-large duo needs to ensure that schools, child-welfare agencies and police are keeping track citywide with a zoom lens that takes a long-range approach. Oftentimes, lawmakers are given only a limited catbird's view that takes the current budget or school year into account.

Council Chairman Phil Mendelson: The council and the Gray administration do not need new data or old, worn-out excuses or reasons regarding truancy.

What they need are solutions.

As council chairman, Mr. Mendelson must ensure the administration stays on point and conveys a taut anti-truancy plan with measurable solutions.

In other words, make sure that, even beyond the context of the inspector general's report, what, precisely, is the Gray administration doing to combat truancy?

Deborah Simmons can be reached at dsimmons@washingtontimes.com.

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About the Author
Deborah Simmons

Deborah Simmons

Award-winning opinion writer Deborah Simmons is a senior correspondent who reports on City Hall and writes about education, culture, sports and family-related topics. Mrs. Simmons has worked at several newspapers, and since joining The Washington Times in 1985, has served as editorial-page editor and features editor and on the metro desk. She has taught copy editing at the University of ...

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