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School attendance bill could backfire

A bill that would tie school funding to attendance, not enrollment, is well-intentioned, but it runs the risk of penalizing school districts for circumstances beyond their control, and it follows the familiar pattern of state-ordered requirements without funding to implement them.

The bill's sponsor is Rep. Betty Komp, D-Woodburn, a former school administrator concerned about Oregon's high rates of absenteeism. Komp has reason for concern: One in five Oregon students is chronically absent, and the state is fourth worst in the nation for attendance. Students who are chronically absent tend to have difficulty succeeding in school and are more likely to drop out before graduating.  

So the problem is real. Komp's proposed solution, however, has problems of its own.

House Bill 2657 would allocate state school funding to districts based on the number of students who show up for class rather than the  number enrolled. That sounds reasonable, but local administrators are concerned it could wind up hurting districts with higher levels of low-income students.

In general, schools with higher poverty rates tend to have higher rates of absenteeism. Absenteeism leads to lower scores on standardized tests, which also can lead to penalties for underperforming schools.

Districts already must stretch limited budgets to do the staff-intensive work needed to increase attendance. Penalizing those districts by withholding funding would mean even less money available for truancy programs.

Officials of local school districts say they already make concerted efforts to reach out to absent students, but note those programs can be expensive. HB 2657 does not provide for any additional funding to cover those costs.

The bill has not yet had a hearing, and it might be possible to improve it if lawmakers are serious about passing it. One idea might be to reverse the approach. Rather than penalize districts with high absentee rates by reducing funding, the state could offer increased payments to underperforming districts that measurably improve student attendance.

Some schools in the state have had more success than others in improving attendance. Share their methods and encourage other schools to emulate them, but reward success rather than penalizing failure. 

It's an age-old truth that a carrot often works better than a stick.