Phil Mendelson is of a mind that his city's government is obligated to curb the school truancy problem. To that end, the chairman of the D.C. Council is in line with his colleague, David A. Catania, who is legislatively poking at the issue by proposing that parents of chronically truant children be punished.
Holding parents accountable for their children's behavior would add a new twist to an old conservative core value, but the general direction of the Catania proposal is rooted in big government.
A crackdown on truancy is a good thing, since local, state and federal monies are allocated by schools enrollment — not parental engagement.
Parents, for sure, must be engaged when children mount unexcused absences.
"Sometimes [high school students] are truant because of illiteracy," Mr. Mendelson, a Democrat, said, adding that "government has an obligation" to make sure children attend school.
"I really believe that truancy is a gateway to all kinds of government services that have been lacking," he said.
And it's a lengthy list — from child welfare and food stamps to health care and prison re-entry programs. Programs that, like public education, suckle tax coffers.
While breaking bread with Mr. Mendelson on Wednesday morning and after listening to Mr. Catania, at-large independent, and reading the anti-truancy legislation that he proposed Tuesday, it's obvious that cracking down on parents reeks of government overreach at this juncture.
The council knows why students are chronic truants, so that's off the check list.
The council does not know — and this is critical — why the school system's sister agencies, such as the ones that subsidize families, do not.
They just don't appear to communicate with one another on behalf of children's education.
And that's not new.
Authorities in the District disengaged parents a very long time ago — even after Al Gore invented the Internet.
Indeed, since the 1990s, officials have been merely putting on facades about school reform.
Under the guise of public engagement, lawmakers and school officials get public input by holding tightly structured klatches on school closings, on school budgets, on curricula changes and graduation rates, and on other school-related topics.
And schools engage parents after the fact — after a child has been labeled a truant.
Getting agencies involved with a child's health, education and welfare could be smart public policy, if lawmakers rethink the to-do list.
After all, progressives don't establish government sanctions on parents when their 17-year-old daughter has an abortion, or contracts HIV or another sexually transmitted disease.
Liberals don't punish parents whose sons impregnate young girls without benefit of marriage or daughters who have babies without benefit of marriage.
Dining on an all-American breakfast at Old Ebbitt Grill, Mr. Mendelson talked about parental engagement, good schools and school resources. And, by the way, he mentioned that he has no designs on running for mayor in 2014.
However, he and Mayor Vincent C. Gray don't see eye-to-eye on targeting anti-truancy programs.
Mr. Mendelson sees third- to eighth-graders as crucial, while the mayor launched his program at Anacostia High School.
Let's hope that doesn't become a political or financial impasse, because the mayor, the council chairman and Mr. Catania are missing a finer point: Many parents haven't a clue as to what's actually taking place in a schoolhouse because authorities do not tell them.
Open the doors and let them in.
• Deborah Simmons can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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