Five D.C. lawmakers introduced a measure to punish parents of public school students who skip school 10 or more times a year.
Fewer than half of DC Public Schools students were rated proficient in either math or reading on their DC Comprehensive Assessment System standardized test last year, and 56 percent graduated high school within four years. The first step to solving these problems is getting students to go to school, said at-large D.C. Councilman David Catania, the lead sponsor of the bill introduced Tuesday.
Under current law, a parent whose child has two or more unexcused absences a month can be found guilty of a misdemeanor and be forced to pay a fine of up to $500 or spend two days in jail.
But the law isn't enforced, Catania said. "As a result, we have an epidemic of truancy."
Last school year, 7,110, or 17.5 percent of DC Public Schools students between ages 5 and 17 -- the age when students are legally required to attend school -- had 11 or more unexcused absences, according to DCPS data. Of those, 3,103 had 21 or more.
School staff are expected to refer students between ages 5 and 13 with more than 10 unexcused absences to the Child and Family Services Agency. But staff referred only 722 of the 3,510 students in that category last year, DCPS data show.
"When you have literally thousands of children missing weeks and weeks of school, it is no wonder why our test scores are so low, and it is no wonder why we have the lowest graduation rates in the country," Catania said.
The bill introduced Tuesday would require parents to be issued a warning once a student reached 10 unexcused absences in a school year. They would be prosecuted when the student has 20 unexcused absences for that year. Parents found guilty would be required to perform community service, receive parental counseling or both. Parents who don't comply would then spend up to five days in jail, pay up to a $100 fine or both.
Though Ward 8 Councilman Marion Barry co-sponsored the bill, he said the measure does not tackle what he said is the largest cause of truancy -- poverty.
Ward 8 is home to the two DCPS schools with the highest truancy rates, Ballou Senior High School and Anacostia High School, where 46 percent and 45 percent of students, respectively, had 21 or more unexcused absences last year.
"You cannot solve the truancy problem unless you solve the income gap," Barry said. "In the public school system, two-thirds of the students are from low-income families."
Representatives of DCPS Chancellor Kaya Henderson, the DC Public Charter School Board and the Office of the State Superintendent of Education said the agencies are reviewing the legislation and declined further comment.