A spirited debate took place Tuesday and Wednesday as Senator Al Jackson (Republican – Highland) successfully advanced SB 45 – Compulsory Education Revisions out of the Senate along partisan lines.
The bill, if successful, would do away with punishing parents with fines or even jail time if they have a student who is chronically absent from school.
“It is my opinion that the virtues of education should be advanced through persuasion, not coercion,” Jackson told the body. “Government should not be used as a force, what should happen instead is that parents should be met with, explain the virtues of education, and should be persuaded to have their child be in school…government should never be in the position of taking someone’s agency away.”
But Democrats were concerned that eliminating the truancy law would get rid of the one incentive some less responsible parents would have to get their children to school.
Senator Karen Mayne (Democrat – Kearns), a former educator, warned the body that “children are not property, they are gifts…I have been in classrooms where parents have taken them out for a month…I have seen kids come half dressed because somebody can’t get their child out of bed to get them to school – I have seen this, this happens, and the only thing we have [for parents] is ‘you can’t do this because you can’t motivate yourself to get your child to school.’ They should be here, it is your responsibility to do that, and there needs to be something in place [to get children to school]…if there is no regulation, then there is no fear of regulation.”
Jackson would counter that “we have a duty and a responsibility to look after all the kids in the sphere of influence, but we are not there to replace the parents. If there is a problem, then collectively, even individually, to help those homes and help those parents understand the virtues of education…but we should not have [truancy laws] as a force to maintain budgets.”
Senator Jim Dabakis (Democrat – Salt Lake City) wondered if lawmakers were looking through the rose colored glasses of a support system that would lead them to become senators in the first place, rather than the reality of many disadvantaged youth and parents.
“In Senator Jackson’s case, probably in his community, the issues there are a little different than from what they might be in other communities and, in some places in the state we can afford to give more precedence to parents, and in some situations we can not and should not. For me, making sure a child is educated is an overwhelming responsibility of the state – as we look at intergenerational poverty, the difference between having intergenerational poverty and not comes down, basically, to education.” Dabakis passionately stated.
Dabakis continued, wondering “how many more children won’t go to school if the state doesn’t have that stick to go into the home and say ‘ you know what? You have to go figure it out. You have to figure out how you are going to provide that opportunity for your child to go to school.'”
In 2015 21 Utah parents were sent to jail 73 were fined based on the failure of parents to get their children to school according to committee testimony.
Senator Howard Stephenson (Republican – Draper) suggested that pushing the truancy laws could lead to tragedy.
“This goes beyond the mark in punishing parents, some of who are struggling to take care of a family…I know some kids that, if the parents were to put pressure on them to go to school, it would create such hostility in the current situation with that child which is out of control, or on drugs, or in trouble in other ways, that to have a parent force that child to go to school under fear of being imprisoned, could trigger far worse things that what we are talking about here,” Stephenson said.
Stephenson would go on to note that the state already has “all the laws that are necessary to cover child welfare,” and would go on to calls the current system “inhumane.”
Senator Todd Weiler (Republican – Woods Cross) told the body that he was struggling with the legislation and recounted a story where a mother in his district is currently using the truancy laws as a tool to get her child to school, noting that otherwise the child, who is twice the mother’s size, would be physically unable to make her child attend classes.
In response to this, Jackson responded that “those [events] are aberrations, I don’t think that is common across the state. I think that the mom with the 300 pound kid in her home – I would assume that she’s got siblings that can come help with this young man, using persuasion – she is a parent of this child – a child living in her home, and she is allowing him to do this – that is her problem…education is not a constitutional right, but being able to raise your kids the way you see fit is a constitutional right.”
Passed second and third reading 24-5 and 22-5 respectively – it is off to the House.