How did Connecticut come to have, according to the state Education Department, more than 20% of its young students chronically absent from school?
How did the state come to have, according to Dalio Education, about 20% of its young people “at risk” or “disconnected,” having dropped out of school or being in danger of dropping out, or unemployed or even unemployable?
Nearly everyone in authority blames it on the recent virus epidemic, during which, under the pressure of the teacher unions, Connecticut closed most of its schools, resorting to the silly pretense of “remote learning.” But schools have been open again for two years.
No, something much bigger is going on here, something that began before the epidemic, though the epidemic worsened it — the steady impoverishment and demoralization of the people at the bottom of society, what social scientists have called the “underclass.”
Of course there have always been and probably always will be poor people, for reasons of bad luck, bad character, or bad government policy. But not so long ago few households in Connecticut needed anything like state government’s new Learner Engagement and Attendance Program, or LEAP, wherein social workers visit the homes of chronically absent students, ask parents about the obstacles to their children’s attendance, direct them to resources, and urge them to try harder to get their children to school.
Not so long ago even poor parents in Connecticut understood that getting their children to school was their primary obligation and that if they failed, “truant officers” might visit them for enforcement. But today “truant officers” are as unfashionable as parental responsibility.
Many parents who don’t get their children to school are receiving various financial supports from government that could be conditioned on improved attendance by their children. Indeed, frequent failure to get one’s children to school could be defined as child neglect or abuse — that is, a crime.
If government took chronic absenteeism that seriously, it might be taken more seriously by negligent parents. But with the LEAP program state government policy now is essentially just to ask, “Pretty please?” — and to spend a lot of money doing so while achieving only marginal results.
Marginal results addressing a huge problem.
Last week at a press conference at East Hartford High School, Gov. Ned Lamont and state Education Commissioner Charlene Russell-Tucker boasted that the LEAP program and others had helped reduce chronic absenteeism in the state’s schools from 23.7% in the 2021-22 school year to 20% in the 2022-23 school year. The governor and commissioner acknowledged that chronic absenteeism remains a huge problem, so state government plans to have spent about $25 million on the LEAP program by 2026.
The merely marginal results suggest that while “pretty please?” policy may put a few hundred more people on government’s payroll, it will not come close to ensuring education for children stuck in the underclass, alienated, disconnected, and “at risk,” and incorporate them into society so they can realize their potential in good rather than menial jobs and enjoy productive lives instead of wallow in dependence like their parents or turn to crime.
Despite government’s claims of a strong economy, conditions in Connecticut are worsening for many households amid high inflation, the worst housing scarcity ever, increasing homelessness, and declining educational achievement that leaves many young people ever less qualified for good jobs.
But hard times come and go. Parental responsibility endures. When government fails so badly to enforce parental responsibility that chronic absenteeism in city schools approaches 50%, as it does in Connecticut, many people seem to have gotten the impression that it really doesn’t matter how they raise their children — that the worst they will suffer is some cajoling from a social worker.
That impression already has been conveyed powerfully by Connecticut’s educational policy of social promotion, which tells parents and students that students will be graduated from high school even if they learn nothing. So why should they worry about being chronically absent?
Chris Powell has written about Connecticut government and politics for many years.