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A Plague of Empty Desks

By Dale Erquiaga Aug. 24, 2017

When I think about going back to school, I recall my classic rural childhood, the kind of thing that makes for a good Norman Rockwell painting. Every August we got new school clothes from a catalog and purchased the supplies that fulfilled the school's list. On that first day of school, after chores were done, my mother prepared my lunch, and I walked the quarter mile to the bus stop. Friends and familiar faces awaited me at the schoolhouse.

As schools across the nation finish registration or welcome back this year's class, my story is very much an alternative reality for millions of American students. Generational poverty robs them of the ability to experience any semblance of stability or academic normalcy. Factor in issues such as race or the ongoing debate about immigration, and the challenge swells. Many of these kids are not going back to school at all.

Indeed, chronic absenteeism – often defined as missing 10 or more school days per year – occurs at every grade level and in schools nationwide. More than 6 million children in the U.S., or one in seven students, miss 15 or more days every school year.

Granted, absenteeism is as old as school itself, but chronic absenteeism in not merely skipping class to hang out with friends, or the product of a particularly vicious flu season. Rather, it is an impediment to learning and in too many cases, and for too many children, helps perpetuate the cycle of poverty. As such, educators must view chronic absenteeism as public schooling's top enemy in the battle to help our children learn and succeed.


Only systemic changes and fresh thinking can achieve this. We have a window of opportunity this year to address this national crisis as the Every Student Succeeds Act – the successor to No Child Left Behind – begins to reshape how states hold schools accountable. In the first proposals that must be submitted to the U.S. Department of Education by Sept. 18, states can make chronic absenteeism a key indicator of success.

As required by the law, states must lay out accountability plans – essentially their road maps for success – and choose multiple indicators to gauge academic progress. Under the Every Student Succeeds Act's formula, states have the flexibility to include chronic absenteeism as one of five key indicators. This might seem like a small step, but doing so – as 14 of 17 states did in the first wave of filings in April – also will allow states to require school districts to track chronic absenteeism, implement short-term benchmarks and long-term goals, and to ambitiously seek improvement. Thirty-plus states that have not yet filed would be wise to include this measure.

I think Woody Allen had it right when he said "80 percent of life is showing up." And too many of America's children living in poverty aren't showing up for school because they lack any semblance of what I had. Millions of them won't have the backpack, the supplies or the home-made lunch. Transportation might be a question, too. There might not even be someone to set the alarm or ensure they get out the door. They might be too afraid to leave home, in essence quarantined by neighborhood or domestic violence. Fear of immigration enforcement may keep others away. Entire families may be homeless. Children may be court-involved, in foster care, or living with the scourge of drug addiction – either their own, or a family member's.

These are the kids who aren't going back to school. They are also the kids organizations like mine serve every day. We need them to show up, and we need a policy environment that leads them back to the classroom. The new education law gives us that framework.

All the white papers and debates over school choice or testing requirements – a fall ritual in Washington – don't matter if the kids' desks sit empty. For those who can only view education reform through a political prism, this is not a state issue or a federal issue. It's a student issue, and it's a plague in every state.

And lest anyone dismiss this one seemingly bureaucratic ask as just paperwork and process, my experience as Nevada's superintendent of public instruction and now running the nation's largest and most effective dropout prevention organization tells me otherwise. It tells me that once you've identified the problem, as we have, our policies must match our priorities. And reducing chronic absenteeism must be a national priority if we are to deliver a world-class education, and a whiff of hope, to millions of students who deserve a better life.

Read the full essay at U.S. News & World Report.