Years ago, in one of his timeless short films, Walt Disney portrayed Donald Duck as a truant officer. Donald’s mission, like all good truant officers of the period, was to get his errant nephews Huey, Dewey and Louie, back to school where they belonged. By using various techniques that included a net and a suction gun, Donald succeeds.
If California Attorney General Kamala Harris has her way, truant officers could soon be making a nationwide comeback. Several cities — including Stockton — have truancy officers or have designated policemen to assume that role.
Harris describes California truancy as “a crisis,” the aggregate societal cost of which, when reduced long-term earnings, increased welfare costs and higher crime rates among eventual high school dropouts are calculated, totals $46 billion.
Last year, Harris’ office issued its report, “In School and On Track,” that detailed the extent of truancy and absenteeism in California and the resulting loss of $1.4 billion a year in funding, lower test scores and higher dropout rates. California defines a truant as a student who is absent or tardy more than 30 minutes without a valid excuse three or more time during the academic year.
Truancy, contrary to popular misconception, can start as early as elementary school, and is often step one toward eventually dropping out of high school. All the statistics are grim. According to the California Department of Education, 691,470 California elementary school children — or 1 out of every 5 elementary school students — were reported to be truant in the 2011-12 school year. Statewide, 38 percent of all truants are elementary school children. One school reported that during the same academic year, more than 92 percent of its students were truant.
We know that nothing good comes from constant truancy, whatever grade level it may occur at. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan wants everyone who is responsible for getting a child to class to be held accountable. That would include parents, other family members and teachers.
Harris’ current dialogue emphasizes the negatives that come within the short and medium term, mainly dropping out and possibly drifting into a life of crime. But, assuming truants avoid crime and drug addiction, what will happen over the longer term by which time elementary school children will be young adults? While it’s always possible that some will have special skills that allow them to work independently or might have to good fortune to latch onto an an entry level job, most will face a bleak future.
Here are some sobering facts that the Bureau of Labor Statistics provide: The U-6 unemployment rate for young adults without a high school diploma is 30 percent. Economists consider U-6 the true measure of employment, since it includes those who want to work but have given up looking.
Worse, the few jobs that may today be available to the under-educated may soon vanish. Google CEO Eric Schmidt is one of many who predict that robots will soon be doing what formerly were blue collar jobs, taking the place of pharmacists, bank tellers, travel agents and a wide variety of clerical workers. Schmidt and others fear that 45 percent of American jobs will be automated within 20 years.
The message: Stay in school, study hard, get a college diploma even if it takes you 10 years. With the job market weak and not projected to improve in the immediate future, there’s no rush.
Joe Guzzardi retired from the Lodi Unified School District in 2008. He lives in Pittsburgh. Contact Joe at email@example.com.