For years in Texas, missing a lot of school has been treated as a crime.
Students often have to pay steep fines or even face jail time.
That’s changing since the governor signed a reform bill into law this week.
Lawmakers have tried before to change how schools deal with students who are frequently absent.
In 2013, a proposal would have let students dismiss a truancy complaint if they earned their high school diploma or its equivalent. Then-Gov. Rick Perry vetoed that idea.
This time is different. State lawmakers passed an even broader truancy reform package. Gov. Greg Abbott signed it into law.
“Truancy is a problem,” said Rep. Dan Huberty, R-Humble.
“You know, we’re criminalizing these kids and we really need to make sure that we work with the school districts and the court systems and find out the real problem, you know, why a student is not attending school,” said Huberty, who worked on the reform.
The new law follows that exact approach: Schools will be required to work more with families to address underlying issues behind truancy. Those can be homelessness or lack of transportation.
“It’s going to mean a complete shift in the way this process is handled for kids,” said Deborah Fowler, executive director of the public interest law center, Texas Appleseed.
“Kids will no longer be saddled with a criminal record. Families that can ill-afford a fine will no longer be fined when kids miss school,” she said.
Under the new law, a school district can still refer a student who is chronically absent to court. But it won’t be adult criminal court anymore. It will be a civil process.
The new law takes effect in September.