To Fight Chronic Absenteeism, Ohio Lawmakers Propose Paying Kids to Go to School

Bipartisan sponsors said cash transfers would be sent to kindergarteners and ninth graders to jumpstart school attendance.

This is a photo of empty desks with backpacks on chairs in a classrooms.

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The bipartisan sponsors of a new bill to target chronic absenteeism want to model a piece of advice from novelist Jean Shepherd: “In God we trust, all others pay cash.”

In a proposed two-year pilot program, Republican state Rep. Bill Seitz and Democratic Rep. Dani Isaacsohn, both of Cincinnati, said cash transfers would be sent to kindergarteners and ninth graders to jumpstart school attendance which has long suffered in the state, but that was exacerbated by a global pandemic.

“This is the number one issue we are facing in education,” Isaacsohn told the House Primary & Secondary Education Committee this week. “It is an absolute emergency and we need to act like it.”

According to the Ohio Department of Education and Workforce, prior to the pandemic, kindergarteners considered chronically absent – missing 10% or more of a school year for any reason – registered at 11%. In the last school year, the rate ballooned to 29%.

Those chronically absent from their freshman year of high school represented 15% of students before the COVID-19 pandemic set in, but has now risen to more than 31%.

“That is not just Ohio. There has been a cultural shift all over the country away from regular, 90-plus percent school attendance,” Isaacsohn said.

One part of the new pilot program, if approved, would provide a total of $1.5 million over two years to give qualified school districts enough for up to two schools to distribute transfers to students or their parents/guardians. Seitz told the committee it will be up to the district to decide how the distribution of funds works, whether it be a biweekly transfer of $25 for each student, quarterly transfers of $150, or annual payment of $500.

A second part of the program would create a base award of $250 for graduating students from qualifying high schools, with an additional $250 to $750 for students with GPAs of 3.0 or above.

School districts would qualify if they receive federal Title 1 funding and rank in the lowest 20% of traditional public schools in graduation rate, as the bill is currently written. Any district hoping to be included in the pilot program would still have to apply.

Rural school districts and urban school districts must be included, Seitz said, and both types “must exhibit chronic absenteeism in the highest quartile based on the most recent state report card ratings.”

“So, we’re going to pick sort of the worst of the worst on attendance and see if we can move the needle,” Seitz told the committee.

With Ohio’s long-term issues keeping students in school and helping them graduate, Seitz said the program comes after several other local-level efforts to bring students in.

“We’ve tried pizza day and we’ve tried playground hours, and we’ve tried all kind of foo-foo stuff,” Seitz said. “Doesn’t seem to work.”

The sponsors received criticism from some Republican members of the committee who worried paying students for something they should be required to do might send the wrong message.

“I don’t see this as rewarding good behavior, I see this as rewarding bad behavior and encouraging the entitlement mentality that a lot of our young people are receiving,” said state Rep. Beth Lear, R-Galena.

State Rep. Josh Williams, R-Sylvania, questioned paying students “to follow the law,” even as truancy laws and parental consequences exist in the state, and even pondered the long-term effects of the concept of financial incentives to abide by the law.

“Are we going to get to the point where we’re paying rapists not to rape,” Williams asked the co-sponsors. “Are we really going to start that trend where we’re going to go in and invest to prevent people from committing crimes?”

Seitz said the “deterrent effect” of laws against crimes like rape have the desired effect, but that isn’t the case for those fighting against chronic absenteeism.

“The deterrent effect of a truant officer is about zero, because most districts don’t even have them, or if they do, they can’t even begin to do the job,” Seitz said.

State Rep. Sean Brennan, D-Parma, a former teacher, agreed that creating an incentive to allow teachers to have their impact on students in the classrooms only serves to help where truancy enforcement – or lack thereof – doesn’t.

“The truancy laws and attendance laws we have in Ohio quite frankly just don’t have a whole lot of teeth,” Brennan said.

The state could benefit as well if the program works, since students who are chronically absentee and those who fail to graduate not only hurt their financial potential, but also the state’s, sponsors said.

“They have lower lifetime earnings, therefore they’re paying lower taxes, they have higher rates of incarceration and interactions with the criminal justice system, higher utilization of public benefits,” Isaacsohn said. “So this is a situation of let’s pay now, so we don’t have to pay later.”

If the pilot program’s data shows success in improving absenteeism and graduation rates in the state, Seitz also said money for future programs could naturally work itself out with less of a need to fund the state’s dropout recovery schools.

The bill will have public hearings for both opposition and proponent comments in the House Primary & Secondary Committee before it goes up for a vote.

Ohio Capital Journal is part of States Newsroom, a network of news bureaus supported by grants and a coalition of donors as a 501c(3) public charity. Ohio Capital Journal maintains editorial independence. Contact Editor David DeWitt for questions: info@ohiocapitaljournal.com. Follow Ohio Capital Journal on Facebook and Twitter.

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