Roy Roberts, Detroit Public Schools emergency manager, recently announced that the district’s deficit is less than $100 million, a decrease of $43 million in the last fiscal year. But for every step DPS takes, it is forced to take two more back. The positive news for Michigan’s largest school district comes at the same time as a threat of a $25.9 million fine due to attendance below state standards. Detroit schools should be given the opportunity to address the underlying causes of truancy instead of being fined — a practice that could exacerbate financial problems and hinder the educational system.
According to The Detroit News, DPS attendance was below the state-mandated 75 percent of the school’s student body on 46 days last school year. In contrast, Utica Community Schools and Dearborn Public Schools — Michigan’s second and third largest school districts respectively — never reached attendance below 75 percent last school year. A total of $680,000 in truancy fines was paid by DPS for the 2009-2010 school year, and officials expect to pay only a fraction of the $25.9 million estimate this year.
The Michigan Department of Education deducts fines from districts’ state aid based on how far attendance is below the 75 percent mark. Last year, average school attendance at DPS on Fridays was 71.2 percent. Though average attendance was above 75 percent Monday through Thursday, it was always below 80 percent. Veterans Day was a half-school day for the district, and DPS only recorded 50.7 percent student attendance — one of many half-days cited for excessive absences.
While the attendance fines are problematic, the actual truancy is a larger concern. Attendance percentages in the mid-70s cannot sustain an educational system. According to the National Center for School Engagement, experts have linked truancy with delinquency and dropping out of school. Students need to regularly attend classes in order to benefit from their education and prepare for their futures.
There are better ways to address truancy problems than limiting schools’ financial resources. It’s difficult to rationalize allocation of funds for absent students. However, cutting funding puts schools at a disadvantage to educate students. The fines also become punishments to students who are consistently attending school, since they suffer from funding cuts.
With class sizes increasing, few of Detroit’s teachers have the resources or time to follow up on absent students. The most important way DPS can address low attendance is to promote parent involvement. Parents should ensure that their children get to school each day and should notify teachers regarding absences and DPS should continue to increase communication with parents.
Schools can incentivize attendance through programs like Count Me In! — a before-school club that offers prizes to students with perfect attendance — and establish consequences for poor attendance. DPS should set achievable goals and encourage good record-keeping and continual evaluation to foster teacher involvement.
Already this year, DPS has seen improvement through enhanced parent communication programs. The attendance rate for the fifth day of school was 85 percent, compared to 69 percent in 2010, according to a report released by DPS. Attendance must remain a primary focus to ensure a better future for Detroit’s students, but the district needs the opportunity to work on these issues before its funding is cut.