As it was initially proposed, Senate Bill 48 would have brought back truancy fines to Oregon and a system that would implicate parents when their children didn’t attend school.
But the bill the Senate Committee on Education moved to the Ways and Means Committee Thursday looks a lot different.
An amendment to the bill, also passed Thursday, will replace most of the original bill and instead outline plans for a task force to focus on chronic absenteeism and truancy. If passed, the 18-member task force would include school staff, parents from an urban and rural area, and representatives from the juvenile justice department. By September 2024, the task force would submit a report that may include recommendations for legislation.
Before the vote, education committee chair Sen. Michael Dembrow, D-Portland, explained the reason for moving forward with a task force instead of an immediate return to truancy court.
“We agreed that the right way to address this is to form a task force that would look at ways to prevent chronic absenteeism upstream,” Dembrow said. “Is there a role still for truancy courts? Just to explore the general issue of chronic absenteeism.”
Sen. Lynn Findley, R-Vale, brought the bill forward at the request of state Rep. Kevin Mannix, R-Salem. Speaking to OPB after the work session, Mannix said he’s pleased to see the bill move forward with a tight turnaround for a report to keep moving the issue forward.
“The committee has now recognized that we have a serious problem, that we need to address it,” Mannix said. “They’re being a little bit careful about how we address it, in terms of not jumping into a statutory change, but they’re willing to move in the direction of taking a look at the problem and looking at all the solutions that are out there.”
At the public hearing for the bill, Mannix recommended that the task force be an addition to the original bill. While he supports the task force, he hopes to see some form of enforcement in the future.
“The bill itself does not provide any teeth, it provides an opportunity for us to create some dentures,” Mannix said.
Findley, the bill sponsor and a former municipal court judge, spoke at a March 7 public hearing about his time managing the truancy court.
“It was a very frustrating experience because I felt so helpless to try and keep the students in the school and engaged,” Findley said.
Findley added that while chronic absenteeism has been an Oregon problem for years, getting Oregon students to attend school regularly has been made worse by the pandemic.
The most recent state data, from the 2021-2022 school year, shows 36% of Oregon students, or 189,064 students, were chronically absent. State officials say attendance rates from 2020-2021 and later are not “directly comparable” to attendance rates for prior years.
Research has found that students who don’t regularly attend school are less likely to graduate from high school.
Most of the Senate education committee voted “yes” on moving the bill Thursday.
The exceptions were Sen. Art Robinson, R-Cave Junction, and Sen. Sara Gelser Blouin, D-Corvallis. Gelser Blouin explained her “no” vote by comparing SB 48 with a bill she sponsored, Senate Bill 819, about shortened school days for students with disabilities.
“I can’t help but point out the irony of putting together a task force for chronic absenteeism when we continue to have children who want to go to school but the doors are slammed shut in their faces,” Gelser Blouin said, referencing the legislation she sponsored, which she said is “stuck in the house” with an implementation date of March 27.
Robinson did not explain his “no” vote.
Ending chronic absenteeism has long been a goal for the Oregon Department of Education. The state’s Every Day Matters campaign encourages students to attend school and provides tools to support schools and families.
Sharing testimony at the March 7 public hearing for SB 48, Reedsport Elementary School principal Amanda O’Brien said those incentives don’t work for all families.
“These approaches work for some families but not our chronically absent students,” O’Brien said.
O’Brien said 37 of her 320 students miss on average of one day out of their four-day school week, with other students missing more.
“Four of those miss on average two days a week, and seven of those have missed roughly two to three days a week.”
In 2021, lawmakers passed Senate Bill 819, which removed truancy fees.
Judges in Crook and Union counties spoke in support of the bill, as did Chloe Campbell, government affairs manager for the Oregon Association of Chiefs of Police. Campbell said her organization was not aware of the change in truancy law until after the legislation had passed.
“Truancy laws with appropriate penalties are effective because they provide legal framework and accountability that helps ensure that children attend school regularly,” Campbell said.
“We believe that the truancy tool provides opportunities for schools, social service organizations, and public safety to partner together to offer encouragement and accountability for families to support their child’s education.”
Both the Oregon Education Association and nonprofit law firm Youth, Rights & Justice submitted testimony opposing Senate Bill 48, saying penalizing truant students is ineffective and harmful.
“Our concerns with creating a penalty for school attendance violations is the connection this has to the school to prison pipeline,” shared OEA.
Youth, Rights & Justice opposed the bill and remained neutral on the task force amendment.
“The answer to truancy is not punishment, but investment in resources for children and families,” said attorney Jennifer McGowan in the testimony from Youth, Rights, & Justice.
In Malheur County, local officials are taking action with a proposed ordinance to reduce truancy for students in the 11 school and education service districts countywide, which include Nyssa, Vale and Ontario. The ordinance says law enforcement or a school official can issue a citation if a student misses 10% or more of school days. After an initial conference, if chronic absenteeism continues, the student and an adult must appear in Justice Court with potential fines: $500 for the first offense and “up to $1000 each subsequent offense.”
Malheur County has scheduled a public hearing on the ordinance for April 5.