California Sen. Kamala Harris’s tough stance on truancy, her signature education issue while she was a local and state prosecutor, is again attracting attention as she embarks on a campaign for president and schools statewide are facing increased scrutiny on chronic absenteeism.
In a video clip from a speech she gave in 2010 while she was San Francisco’s district attorney, Harris, who later that year became the state attorney general, attributes her success in life to her education. She says: “I believe a child going without an education is tantamount to a crime. So, I decided I was going to start prosecuting parents for truancy.”
The clip, which has been viewed more than 2 million times since she announced her candidacy in January, raises difficult questions about the extent to which parents should be held responsible for getting their children to school and whether or how they should be punished if they don’t.
“We recognized that as a prosecutor I have huge stick and the school has a carrot, so let’s work in tandem on our collective objective goal to get kids in school,” she said in her speech.
The clip has already reignited criticism of Harris from some child advocates and others who feel that law enforcement is overly involved in schools, especially in low-income communities where children and parents may already feel they have been disproportionately or unfairly targeted by police.
State and local officials whose job it is to focus on school attendance say Harris, as much as any other state leader, played a significant role in raising awareness of chronic absenteeism. Years after she first called attention to it, absenteeism rates are now one of the main measures of success on the California School Dashboard, the state’s online report card on how schools and districts are doing on a range of indicators.
“Her work really created a statewide focus on this issue,” said Amir Alavi, a deputy district attorney in Riverside County who serves on the State Attendance Review Board, which is responsible for establishing school attendance policies and working with families of truant students. It is the last stop before the court system for students who are habitually truant.
“To say she had a strong impact on the field is not a controversial statement, if anything it’s an understatement,” Alavi added.
What was and remains controversial in some circles, however, is Harris’s sponsorship of a bill in 2010, which Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger signed into law, that allowed police to file misdemeanor charges against parents of habitually truant students. Under the law, parents can be fined as much as $2,000 and serve up to a year in jail.
While no statewide tally of parents who have been prosecuted for their truant children exists, officials agree it is a very small number. Harris said she prosecuted just 25 under her initiative in San Francisco. Nonetheless, she and many school administrators and prosecutors consider the threat of prosecution a useful deterrent.
However, several child advocates interviewed by EdSource call it misguided public policy.
“It is wrong to punish a parent while not looking at the systemic inequities that make it easier for students to not go to school,” said Maisie Chin, co-founder of CADRE, a Los Angeles-based organization focused on improving parent engagement in schools that serve low-income communities. “It is a practice rooted in anti-black parent racism and anti-poor discrimination.”
Harris’s campaign and Senate office did not return calls for comment from an EdSource reporter. However, a campaign spokesperson told HuffPost recently that Harris “believed a critical way to keep kids out of jail when they’re older is to keep them in school when they’re young.”
But intimidation tactics are not the answer, said Angelica Salazar, the director of education equity for the Children’s Defense Fund, a Los Angeles-based organization that advocates for youth in underserved communities.
“I still talk to families in L.A. County who get letters saying they could be prosecuted for school attendance,” Salazar said. “It is very scary for families in low-income communities of color who already have fears of police and immigration enforcement. It is not a joke.”
Because the truancy law generated so many headlines at the time, it obscured a number of things Harris did to combat chronic absenteeism during her tenure as California’s top prosecutor, say Alavi and others who focus on school attendance.
From 2013 to 2016, Harris’s office released an annual report called “In School and On Track,” which provided large amounts of data on chronic absenteeism in schools statewide showing how it causes students to do worse academically, become more likely to drop out and end up in the criminal justice system.
“The California Constitution provides every child with the fundamental right to an elementary, middle, and high school education,” stated the first report issued by Harris’s office when she was attorney general. “Yet across our state, thousands of elementary school children are denied that right because they never make it to the classroom.”
The reports also recommended policy changes, ranging from better state tracking of chronically absent students to early intervention programs aimed at students and their families.
“Many school districts responded to these annual reports by improving their school attendance review board process and initiating positive behavior support programs and restorative justice programs to reduce student suspension rates and chronic absenteeism rates,” wrote Cynthia Butler, an education department spokeswoman, in an email to EdSource.
Harris was also a strong supporter of a 2016 state law which expanded the duties of school districts’ supervisors of attendance to specifically include developing programs and interventions that combat chronic absenteeism and truancy.
David Kopperud, chairman of the State School Attendance Review Board, said Harris was unafraid to call out county offices of education for not compiling required annual reports on the number of truancy cases referred to local attendance review boards and to the courts.
“She was moving the needle,” Kopperud said. “But then she got elected to another office.”