- The Washington Times - Wednesday, February 16, 2005

A truancy crisis is plaguing D.C. schools. That’s the only possible conclusion to reach after the news this week ” reported by Jim McElhatton of The Washington Times ” that almost one in four D.C. public-school students skipped school without an excuse 20 or more times last year. That’s more than 15,000 of 65,000 students citywide. The District’s truancy rate is more than four times the national average, according to Ken Seeley, president of the National Center for School Engagement. This compares poorly with neighboring Prince George’s County (1.8 percent), Fairfax County (0.6 percent) and Montgomery County (0.9 percent).

The question is, why? With the lavish funding the District bestows on its schools ” $11,269 per pupil, more than any of the 50 states ” it can’t be a lack of funding. Lax enforcement is the obvious candidate. Asked to comment on the truancy findings, Board of Education President Peggy Cooper Cafritz pointed to school quality, saying that “having good, alluring substantive schools for kids to go to” would yield a “sustained decrease” in truancy.

We don’t know whether “alluring” schools keep troubled and truant teenagers in the classroom, but we do know that the Department of Education’s manual on fighting truancy cites some very measurable things like getting parents involved, holding them accountable when they aren’t, using local law-enforcement options and creating truancy-prevention programs. You don’t need cutting-edge curricula or state-of-the-art schools for these; you need dedicated people to spend time and effort making them work. Baltimore’s schools use more lenient criteria to determine truancy, but report that only about 10 percent of students are truant. Clearly, if nearby and comparable Baltimore schools can keep half as many children from ditching school, Washington can do better.

Truancy is an open door to a life of crime. When social scientists crunch the numbers, they find that truancy goes together with things like a future behind bars and a life of behavioral and social problems. The biggest gains could be made by immediately identifying the schools with the worst truancy rates. At the top of that list are Washington Center at Margaret Murray Washington Career High School and the Duke Ellington School of the Arts. Rates at the first exceed 75 percent, and Duke Ellington’s is 70 percent. D.C.’s schoolchildren deserve better than that.

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