Growing homelessness and child poverty are fueling truancy in the earliest grades across Illinois, but efforts to fight the problem are often thwarted by dwindling resources and weaknesses in state law, school administrators say.
The Illinois State Board of Education this year is giving school districts $12 million in grants under the Truants' Alternative and Optional Education Program, compared with $20 million in 2009.
"The state chops and chops — it is devastating," said Bobbi Mattingly, superintendent of Regional Office of Education No. 11 in central Illinois, where two "overworked and underpaid" attendance specialists, plus one working part time, handle roughly 200 truancy cases across seven counties in grades K-8.
"We are seeing more younger kids missing school — I think it is dramatic," said Clayton Naylor, director of truancy prevention for the Rock Island Regional Office of Education. "It seems like more people lack the resources to get their kids to school. They don't have the network it sometimes takes. Families are just giving up."
In four rural counties around Jerseyville, near St. Louis, where smokestack industries disappeared and the economy has collapsed, five truancy officers and mentors handle a caseload of 745 truants and at-risk youth, many of them middle-schoolers.
"There is a direct correlation between school attendance and delinquency: The more school they miss, the more they get in trouble," said Jersey County Judge Eric Pistorius, who handles the most serious truancy cases.
"You have to spend time to understand why the youth is absent," Pistorius said. "Maybe Mom works midnights. Is it transportation? Are there drug or alcohol issues? Is this a kid who can't answer the questions in class or gets picked on? You spend the time to investigate, then craft an individualized solution, monitor it and impose consequences."
But school authorities say Illinois law often prevents them from imposing consequences on parents of the youngest truants — those in kindergarten and first grade. State laws don't make school compulsory until age 7, when most youngsters enter second grade.
In most states, children must be in school starting at age 5. Illinois is one of 16 states where the bar is set at 7, and two others require attendance at 8, according to
"I would certainly like to see that happen,"
Another barrier to combating elementary school truancy comes when parents stave off authorities by falsely claiming they are home schooling their children.
Illinois is among 10 states that do not require home-schooling parents to register with the state, have their curriculum approved, administer standardized tests or submit to home visits by officials, according to the Home School Legal Defense Association, an advocacy group that opposes such regulations.
While experts say most home-schooling families do a good job, Illinois law provides little protection for youth whose parents abuse the privilege, according to educators and law enforcement officials from around the state.
"There are a lot of people that are so-called home schooling that I believe are (providing) almost no education," said Val Gunnarsson, chief judge of the state's 15th Circuit, based in Carroll County. "There's a problem with our statute on this. I recognize the constitutional right to educate your child at home, but I think the public has a right to say, 'Are you really doing it?'"
Jeffrey Lewis, an attorney and board member of Illinois Christian Home Educators, a statewide support group for home-schooling families, said, "We have seen situations where parents are not legally home schooling their children."
But Lewis said he did not think a registration requirement would help for "folks that abuse the system."