Staggering chronic absenteeism in District of Columbia schools is prompting calls to hold parents accountable, though what that means exactly remains unclear.

DC Mayor Muriel Bowser told the media last week she will soon unveil plans to hold parents of chronically absent students accountable, noting the current system of referrals to social services is not working, WJLA reports.

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The Office of the State Superintendent of Education issued a report in November that found 60% of the city’s high school students missed all or part of at least 10 days of school, while 43% of all students in the district met that threshold in the 2022-23 school year.

Those figures mark a significant increase from the pre-pandemic rate of 30% during the 2018-19 school year. The significant increase in absent students is also part of a national trend since the pandemic. The most recent data from the conservative-leaning American Enterprise Institute found an estimated 26% of public school students were considered chronically absent last school year, up from 15% before the pandemic.

Bowser told WJLA her coming proposal, expected as soon as this week, “includes how we are able to hold parents accountable for the actions of their kids, and when I say that, that means require them to get the services that they need.”

“In our system right now, if they make a referral to (Child and Family Services) or to the courts or to the (Office of Attorney General), nothing happens,” the mayor said. “So they have then entered into an antagonistic relationship with the family to no good end. So we have to tighten that up.”

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Legislation currently pending at the city council would support the district’s safe passage program to get students to school safely, and would provide additional taxpayer funds to schools with high absenteeism numbers. The bills, from Ward 6 Councilmember Charles Allen and others, would also lower the threshold for intervention to allow school leaders to take action at five absences, instead of 10, WUSA reports.

“Not every kid who is missing school is going to go commit crime,” Allen told the news site. “But we know that not much good happens when a kid is missing that much school.”

Bower and members of the council have insisted accountability for parents should not include jail time, but rather a focus on connecting parents with taxpayer funded resources.

“We should not be locking up parents because of truancy,” Ward 5 Councilmember Zachary Parker said.

Parker told The Washington Informer his Showing Up for Students Amendment Act would define educational neglect as the accumulation of 30 unexcused absences in a school year without any “reasonable efforts to ensure or improve attendance.”

The legislation also expands valid excuses for absences, sets triggers for summer home visits, and would require referrals to the Department of Human Services after seven absences in a 120-day period.

“We heard from CFSA that many of the referrals they get, they aren’t investigating or supporting families because it doesn’t rise to the level of neglect that would allow them to intervene,” Parker said. “This bill makes clear for parents that there’s a red line for educational neglect. It would allow CFSA to take seriously the cases that need to be taken seriously.”

Whether the council ultimately adopts the bills from its members or something different from Bowser, Allen believes the outcome will come with a significant price tag.

“It’s about urgency and a multifaceted approach,” Allen said. “We can’t ask schools to do more with less money and less staff. Creating a new funding category based on absenteeism and truancy is the way to get money in our schools and put more control of that money on the school level.”

Jessica Giles, executive director of Education Reform Now DC, told The Informer the efforts to address chronic absenteeism are a positive thing, but finding the funds to take action amid a budget gap of nearly $1 billion will be key.

“At the end of the day, there’s no silver bullet,” Giles said. “Truancy is a symptom of issues affecting students’ lives. Funding is going to be critical. That’s something I’m looking out for in the budget. Attendance is at the center of it all.”