A new state truancy law takes effect September 1, and there’s disagreement over whether it’s a good idea. The new law reduces skipping school from a misdemeanor to a civil fine, eliminating jail time for truant students.

Ashlea Graves, government relations director for the Houston Independent School District, says HISD is ready to work with the new law.  She says it’s a means of “trying to address a very large-scale problem with the school-to-prison pipeline.”  She says it’s too soon to say how much the new law will affect the dropout rate or absenteeism.

Graves says the district already prefers to involve the courts only as a final measure. “In HISD, we’re doing a pretty good job of keeping our kids out of truancy court,” she says.  “It is a last resort right now, and that will not change.”

State Senator John Whitmire of Houston, who wrote the bill, says kids who miss school shouldn’t be treated like criminals. “There’s no reason to send students to an adult court, with an adult fine, with an adult profile, for missing school.”  Whitmire says Texas issued more than 100,000 truancy tickets last year, and is the only state that criminalizes school absences.

Whitmire says there are often compelling reasons why a student isn’t in the classroom. “Most cases of truancy deal with hardships,” he says. “The family’s going through a divorce, there’s a mental health issue, there’s drug- or alcohol-related matters.” He also refers to the hardships of single-parent families, and says other complicating factors include teen pregnancy or even unexpected car trouble. Penalizing people who need help only makes matters worse while not fixing “the root cause of missing school,” he says.

Whitmire says most opposition to the bill was in good faith, but some came from such financially interested institutions as boot camps for truants. The senator disagrees with those who say the law will actually increase the dropout rate.  He expects the results to be “just the opposite.”