Assembly Education Committee discusses truancy bills and choice program consolidation

By: - February 8, 2024 5:45 am

Rep. Amy Binsfeld said the bills would provide tools to keep parents and students accountable when it comes to attendance. (Screenshot via WisEye)

The Wisconsin Assembly Education Committee held hearings on a slate of bills aimed at limiting truancy in schools and a bill would consolidate the state’s school choice programs on Wednesday. 

Republican bills aim to tackle truancy

A package of bills meant to address concerns about school attendance rates in Wisconsin are the result of the hearings held and research done by a bipartisan task force on truancy that was convened by Assembly Speaker Robin Vos and chaired by Rep. Amy Binsfeld (R-Sheboygan). The focus on truancy comes after chronic absenteeism was reported to have risen sharply in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Binsfeld and Rep. Paul Melotik (R-Grafton), the lead authors of some of the proposals, said the bills would provide tools to keep parents and students accountable when it comes to attendance. A state Department of Public Instruction witness said the department appreciated the work being done to look at the issue, but criticized aspects of the proposals, including one bill that would implement a retention policy.

AB-1025 is meant to establish statewide standards for what truancy is, defining it as “an absence that is more than one-third of one or more days from school for which the school is not notified of a legal cause for the absence by the pupil’s parent or legal guardian.” The bill would also define “habitual truant” to mean a student “who is absent without an acceptable excuse for at least one-third of a day for at least five school days during a semester.” 

“We were all a little shocked in the task force when we found out how different the experience was when it came to logging truancy,” Binsfeld said. “We heard from a couple of school districts. They considered [arriving at school] five to ten minutes [late] to be truant, and the child was marked as such.” 

Currently, “truant” is defined in state law as a student being absent “without an acceptable excuse for all or part of one or more days during which school is held” and “habitually truant” is a student with unexcused absences for five or more days in a semester. Each school district sets its own definition for what “part of a day” means. 

Binsfeld added that lawmakers came up with the one-third of a day marker after considering a number of factors, including accommodations and the ways that schools may split their school days up. 

Another bill, AB-1026, would prohibit schools from promoting a student to the next grade who is absent for more than the equivalent of 30 full school days in a year. 

“I know this one is going to give some people some heartburn,” Binsfeld said. “A child could miss 89 one-thirds of a day before they actually get held back. The goal of the bill is to not frivolously hold a child back. The goal is to look at the students, find out why they’re not there, work with them from the front side and get them there.”

The bill would not count absences on days when the compulsory school attendance law doesn’t apply, including days when a student is excused ahead of time with parent approval or when a student is temporarily not in school due to a physical or mental condition.

Binsfeld said that the bill is meant to make parents’ accountable. 

“Wake up, get your kid to school and be responsible,” Binsfeld said. She added that it’s also meant to say to students that it is their “responsibility to be in school,” and “to learn and to move forward, to advance into society.” 

Democrats and DPI both expressed concerns about the impacts the policy could have on students. 

In a statement ahead of the public hearing, DPI Superintendent Jill Underly said the bill could harm students rather than provide an effective solution to ongoing school attendance problems. 

“Legislation being discussed today in the Capitol appears to be intent on punitive measures that would discourage kids, create challenges for families, and are likely to actually increase absences and the likelihood of student dropouts,” Underly stated. “Mandatory grade retention is not a realistic solution and does nothing to improve student outcomes. If we want to address this challenge, we need to work together to remove barriers and encourage prevention strategies.”

Underly called on lawmakers to invest in resources including special education, mental health, and nutrition funding, rather than adopt a punishment.

Committee member Rep. Francesca Hong (D-Madison) said she was concerned about the retention mandates for “little kids — kindergarteners and first graders — where at times… they may not be coming from families who are able to always get them to school on time.” She asked Binsfeld if she would be open to considering a different day threshold, or not applying the policy for younger learners. 

Binsfeld said she appreciated what Hong asked, but said that time in school is instrumental for younger learners. 

“I do understand where you’re coming from as far as economic situations or some other factors,” Binsfeld said. “Those are going to be the same parents that can then fall into that same realm when the child is in fourth or fifth grade… It becomes kind of an excuse.” 

Two bills, AB-1027 and AB-1028, would direct DPI to create a truancy reduction grant program and dedicate $2 million for it in the 2024-25 school year.

When students are habitually truant, school districts send parents a letter to call attention to the problem. AB-1024 would add language to that letter telling parents that they can request an evaluation of whether the child has a disability or, for a child already identified as having a disability, advising parents that the child’s individualized education program can be reviewed and, if appropriate, revised. 

Binsfeld said that there were worries the proposed addition might lead more parents to request IEPs. She said that school districts could be responsible for figuring out whether a student would need one, however, and that the main point of the bill would be to engage parents and notify them of their options.

Binsfeld said an amendment is being developed to add language telling parents that unexcused absences could potentially be reversed if an excuse is provided. 

Deputy State Superintendent Tom McCarthy told lawmakers that DPI is concerned that the bill could place an undue burden on special education and lead parents to believe their child qualifies for an IEP even if that’s not so.

The final bill, AB-1029, would require DPI to include in its annual school and school district report cards information about the percentage of pupils who are habitually truant.

McCarthy told lawmakers that DPI currently tracks chronic absenteeism, not truancy, making it difficult to implement some of the proposals. 

“There are a lot of assumptions in these bills that the department has truancy data, and we do not,” McCarthy said. “So being able to turn on a system in [20]24-25 that is based on those rates and data is not possible.”

Consolidating state school choice programs 

The committee also considered a bill that would combine the three choice programs currently administered by DPI — the Milwaukee Parental Choice Program, Racine Parental Choice Program and Wisconsin Parental Choice Program — into one program called the Private School Choice Program. The bill is meant to bring more efficiency to the school voucher system once enrollment caps for the programs are lifted in 2026-27, according to the authors.

John Soper, chief of staff for Sen. Duey Stroebel (R-Saukville), told the committee that the bill, AB 1042, was introduced so late in the legislative session because lawmakers have been working for months on it, having discussions with DPI, schools in the choice programs and families. 

Soper said the bill is meant to provide “clarity, efficiency, accountability and accessibility to all the programs,” and to only make technical, not policy, changes to the program. 

The bill would create an automatic re-enrollment process to make the process of remaining in the voucher system easier for families, according to Rep. Jessie Rodriguez (R-Oak Creek), the bill’s Assembly author. 

“If a school plans to have enough seats in the following school year for all of their current PSCP pupils, they will be able to offer families a seat,” Rodriguez said in written testimony for the bill. “Under the optional re-enrollment process, parents will have the ability to opt-in and accept their child’s seat easily,” rather than completing an application. “If a school will not have enough seats to accommodate every current pupil who is of age to return in the subsequent school year, the school will proceed with a lottery.” 

No changes to pupil eligibility requirements would be made under the bill. 

The bill would also require that participating private schools have a physical location in Wisconsin, though students wouldn’t be required to receive instruction at the physical location. 

The bill includes provisions requiring private voucher schools providing virtual instruction to ensure that a teacher is responsible for various aspects of that instruction and related pupil learning. A participating school would be required to make its intent to provide virtual instruction known and the amount and type of virtual instruction it would offer. 

The program would also make changes to the Special Needs Scholarship Program (SNSP). Those include requiring the private school to be accredited to participate in the SNSP. The legislation also would subject teachers and administrators at a private school in the SNSP to the same requirements governing personnel at private schools in the Private School Choice Program. It also includes a requirement for private schools to allow students in the SNSP to opt out of religious activities if the child’s parent submits a written request to the child’s teacher or the private school’s principal.

Chanell Crawford, director of parental education options for DPI, said that the agency welcomes the consolidation bill.

“DPI does believe that this bill will create administrative efficiencies that will positively impact participating families, schools and the department while maintaining and more closely aligning the current law accountability provisions across all the programs,” said Crawford, who noted that the bill does not expand the choice programs.

The bill currently includes two full-time positions. Crawford said that DPI would need additional funds and positions to implement some of the changes, and that the agency will ask the Joint Finance Committee to fund the positions as well as to provide one-time funds for IT-related costs.

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Baylor Spears
Baylor Spears

Baylor Spears is a staff reporter for the Wisconsin Examiner. She’s previously written for the Minnesota Reformer and Washingtonian Magazine. A Tennessee-native, she graduated with a degree in journalism from Northwestern University in June 2022.

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