Credit: Christopher Victorio/imageSPACE/MediaPunch /IPX
U.S. Senator Kamala Harris, D-Calif., speaks to her supporters at the official launch rally for her presidential campaign in front of Oakland City Hall at Frank H. Ogawa Plaza on Jan. 27, 2019.

California Senator 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 last month, 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.”

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  1. Sydney Gurewitz Clemens 6 days ago6 days ago

    Social work is called for in the case of a truant child. The worker must analyze the reason for absence, and do what can be done to solve it. I had such a job in the sixties, working for a Harlem childcare program. It involved buying alarm clocks, or “decent school clothing” or other fixes that made the family willing to take the child to developmental childcare.
    We need to help people who need help!

  2. Paul 1 week ago1 week ago

    Has anyone considered the idea that the current public school structure and academic pressure may be creating stress that keeps kids from attending school? I taught for 35 years at the elementary level and retired last June because of the increased emphasis on testing and covering curricula that are developmentally inappropriate. I had to give up most of the things I did to show students that learning can be fun and relevant to … Read More

    Has anyone considered the idea that the current public school structure and academic pressure may be creating stress that keeps kids from attending school? I taught for 35 years at the elementary level and retired last June because of the increased emphasis on testing and covering curricula that are developmentally inappropriate. I had to give up most of the things I did to show students that learning can be fun and relevant to their lives in order to stay on a rigid pacing guide. Making learning relevant and fun, as well as giving teachers opportunities to give students more options and choice in what they learn would go far in solving chronic truancy/absenteeism.

  3. Bill Younglove 1 week ago1 week ago

    Harris has it ABSOLUTELY correct. When a student misses school s/he misses out. Schools (districts) that do not start with attendance start with nothing. All else possible follows from being there–in the first place. (From a 55 year veteran teacher)

  4. Jenifer 1 week ago1 week ago

    What in the world is wrong with the law which Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger signed into law, that allowed police to file misdemeanor charges against parents of habitually truant students. Progressives don’t know when to call a crime a crime, parents not being held accountable. Harris will flip soon, when she realizes her stance was against the progressive agenda.

  5. jenifer 1 week ago1 week ago

    It’s about time parents are held accountable for their children. Harris will flip as soon as she realizes she needs the votes. This is why we’re in such a mess with students not showing up because schools want to take responsibility away from parents.

  6. isaac abdul haqq 2 weeks ago2 weeks ago

    "Locking Up Our Own" is bad politics for today's black politician. I wonder if there are enough 'I apologizes' out there to make up for Harris' mistake. Read More

    “Locking Up Our Own” is bad politics for today’s black politician. I wonder if there are enough ‘I apologizes’ out there to make up for Harris’ mistake.

  7. Andrew F Morrill 2 weeks ago2 weeks ago

    I'd have to understand better than I do currently the reasons why children of color and the student populations in question are absent so frequently. But Harris' intent to hold parents accountable for their children's attendance in school is provocative and at least begs the question as to the responsibilities parents have to be sure their children are in school. One could hardly argue that this is not a responsibility of parents. … Read More

    I’d have to understand better than I do currently the reasons why children of color and the student populations in question are absent so frequently. But Harris’ intent to hold parents accountable for their children’s attendance in school is provocative and at least begs the question as to the responsibilities parents have to be sure their children are in school. One could hardly argue that this is not a responsibility of parents. But again, I’ll own my ignorance of the research. I just hope the argument is not rhetorical.

  8. SONJA SEVCIK 2 weeks ago2 weeks ago

    This is a tough but an important issue and it’s not just a California problem. School truancy and attendance is a national issue and requires carrot and stick measures. I don’t believe anyone should be fined monetarily but I don’t think choosing between some time in jail or required parenting education classes would be at all unreasonable.

  9. Melinda D Geiser 2 weeks ago2 weeks ago

    I am extremely liberal and not for “punishing parents” in general, but i believe this tool (ability to prosecute – or threaten to prosecute) is a good one to instill in parents (and children) the importance of regular attendance, to deter truancy, and to advocate for additional resources to support children. I think the results (lower truancy rates, higher graduation, and low use of prosecution) indicate it is a useful and successful tool.

  10. Charles R Hoff 2 weeks ago2 weeks ago

    Senator Harris is so right on this issue. Parents should be afraid of the consequences for not sending their children to school.

    Until we become serious about education the results, no matter the amount of money involved, are not likely to change.