AUGUSTA — When people think of truancy, what typically comes to mind is wayward teenagers trying to dodge what they consider yet another boring day in high school.

Think of the movie “Ferris Bueller’s Day Off,” for example.

But that’s not how it always is.

In Lewiston, for example, one 6-year-old missed over 50 days of school last year, Superintendent Bill Webster recently told legislators. That student may have been unusually prone to staying home, but others are nearly as bad.

Webster said 25 percent of Lewiston prekindergarten pupils are chronically absent, along with 20 percent of kindergartners and 15 percent of first-graders. 

He said parents who can’t do better “are likely sealing the fate of their children to be not only unsuccessful in school but also unsuccessful in life. In fact, the low graduation rate at Lewiston High School is significantly impacted by dropouts who developed poor school attendance habits in elementary school.”

The Legislature’s Education and Cultural Affairs Committee is taking aim at the problem. This week, it endorsed a bill introduced by Sen. Nate Libby, D-Lewiston, that would let schools extend truancy enforcement rules to 5- and 6-year-olds enrolled in public school. Truancy rules in place now begin at age 7.

Hoping to avoid raising hackles with wary parents, the measure makes clear the truancy rules would not include home-schooled students. It would also give parents the chance to remove their children younger than 7 from public school.

Webster told legislators that when school officials sought to deal with an absence-prone 6-year-old, they approached a caseworker for the Department of Health and Human Services for help. They were surprised to learn that there was nothing to be done because Maine law doesn’t require school attendance until age 7, he said.

“Now, a 7-year starting point may well work fine for children of families with the resources to provide the learning experiences they need to develop and be successful in school,” Webster said. “This is not the case with many of our families in Lewiston, however.”

“These early years are foundational in a child’s learning,” Libby said. “This bill will help ensure school districts have the same resources at their disposal for older learners, including truancy officers, for our youngest.”

John Kosinksi of the Maine Education Association told legislators that “if a student is enrolled in a school, even if they are younger than 7 years old, then they need to attend school.”

“Attendance at school is critical, especially in the earliest grades when children begin learning how to read and the fundamentals of math. Missing school at this stage could result in a student falling behind from their peers,” he said.

There’s no guarantee the measure will ever become law, however.

Gov. Paul LePage vetoed a similar bill in 2015 because, he said at the time, “I cannot support a law that would interfere with the rights of parents to decide when their children are ready for school. This bill marks an invasion of the government into family matters.”

The governor said the state “should focus on investing in our classrooms and our teachers” and inspiring students to learn “rather than sending out truancy officers to round up” youngsters who may not be ready.

LePage isn’t alone in his concerns.

An Auburn mother of three, Renee Simonitis, told legislators, “The state does not know my children best. l do.”

She said the children who are between 4 and 7 years old are in a transitional time when it “ought to be left up to the parents to decide how much schooling is appropriate for their children. That time is an important time for children to be with their parents, and it’s the space that allows for the difference in nature and personality to acclimate themselves, moving from unstructured time to structured time.”

Simonitis said that when she looks at her children, she “feels knots in my stomach thinking about government mandates forcing them into something they often just wouldn’t be ready for.”

Angel Martinez Loredo, the team leader for higher education and certification at the Maine Department of Education, said his department also opposes Libby’s proposal.

“Courts have recognized that parents have the right to make decisions regarding their child’s education,” he said, and his department “believes that parents should retain the right to decide for themselves whether their child should be enrolled in school before the age of compulsion.”

Still, he noted, “chronic absenteeism deeply affects learning,” and finding a solution to the problem is important. He said proposals to offer incentives to young students and parents to attend school regularly may be a better approach.

Penny Morrell, state director of Concerned Women for America of Maine, said Libby’s proposal “interferes with the right of parents to decide when their child is ready for school and invades the government into private lives and families. What trauma it would cause for truant officers to be dispatched to round up 5- and 6-year-olds who aren’t ready to go to school.”

Yet Elaine Tomaszewski, acting deputy executive director of the Maine School Management Association, said lowering the truancy age is a good approach.

She said the association backs the bill “because of the clear link between early education and a child’s success in school. That link, however, is broken, or at best weakened, if the child’s attendance is sporadic.”

“Poor attendance in kindergarten, if left unchecked, also could lead to bad habits for both parents and students and set the stage for high absenteeism throughout a child’s education,” she said.

“This bill seeks only to address chronic absenteeism among our youngest students, nothing more and nothing less,” Libby said. “A parent’s right to make decisions about student attendance in public school — or in private school or in home-school — must be preserved. This bill makes no significant change in that regard.”

Legislators on the committee took Libby’s side, voting 7-2 to send the measure on to the Senate for consideration.

Lewiston School Superintendent Bill Webster

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