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Torlakson wants to tie student attendance, school funding

To address truancy crisis, California's superintendent of public instruction also wants school performance ratings tied to attendance.

September 30, 2013|By Teresa Watanabe
  • A report issued by California Atty. Gen. Kamala D. Harris found that nearly 1 million elementary students — about one in four — were truant last year and that 250,000 students missed at least 10% of the school year.
A report issued by California Atty. Gen. Kamala D. Harris found that nearly… (Bethany Mollenkof, Los…)

Aiming to curb student truancy, the state's top education official said Monday he would push to tie attendance to school funding and performance ratings.

State Supt. of Public Instruction Tom Torlakson also said he would seek funding to upgrade state computer systems so that individual student attendance data can be collected and analyzed. California is one of just four states not collecting such data statewide.

"I will be strongly encouraging these steps because the evidence is so overwhelming that truancy and chronic absence are putting students at risk of not succeeding academically," Torlakson said.

The proposed measures were among those recommended in a report on elementary school truancy issued Monday by state Atty. Gen. Kamala D. Harris. The report found that nearly 1 million elementary students — about one in four — were truant last year and that 250,000 students missed at least 10% of the school year. Such absences imperil a student's ability to read by third grade and, in 2010-11, cost school districts $1.4 billion in state dollars, which are distributed based on attendance, the report found.

At a forum on the issue Monday at the California Endowment in Los Angeles, top education, law enforcement and civil rights leaders spoke about how to curb the truancy crisis.

Hedy Chang, director of Attendance Works, a San Francisco-based nonprofit, said that an "early warning system" to flag truant students was critical but that budget cuts had reduced school staff to reach out to them and their families.

Los Angeles County Dist. Atty. Jackie Lacey urged her counterparts to become more involved in the attendance issue. Sending letters to parents informing them that state law requires students ages 6 to 18 to attend school and provides criminal penalties for parents who fail to comply could help spur improvements, she said.

"We're not out to put parents in custody ... but we are out to get attention," she said.

Torlakson said he would instruct state education officials to include attendance as a greater factor in determining the Academic Performance Index, a 1,000-point rating that is widely viewed as the key marker of school quality.

He also said he would encourage school districts to include chronic absence as one factor in measuring whether they are effectively using extra state dollars for students who are low-income, non-fluent in English or in foster care under a new state funding formula.

Torlakson added that he would start exploring ways to pay to upgrade the state computer system to collect individual student data. Chang said that earlier estimates placed the cost at about $300,000 but that statewide data would greatly assist efforts to pinpoint problem areas and direct state assistance to them.

teresa.watanabe@latimes.com

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