Absences: Unexcused and Nonfunded
The subject of “absences” can be a challenging concept. Parents like the freedom, and have the right, to take their child out of class to take care of medical and personal matters. School officials know that students who are not in class are not mastering the objectives that they are ultimately held accountable. No one denies these two distinct perspectives but when the two parties must discuss a student’s attendance, the language of educators differ from that of the parents. The result is inconsistent communication, frustrated parents, and concerned campus officials. Our office gets a lot of questions regarding attendance expectations, truancy expectations, and what should and should not be done by both the parents and the school’s administration. Any misunderstanding from either side can create a lot of confusion and a political relations nightmare.
Unexcused and Nonfunded
According to the Student Attendance Accounting Handbook 3.6.3, “For official attendance accounting purposes, ‘excused’ and ‘unexcused’ absences do not exist.” In the world of accountability, there is only “Funded and Nonfunded”. Students who are on campus and accounted for during the campus’s official attendance time receives full funding based on the student’s designated ADA or funding eligibility (half day or full day). A district receives no funding if the student is not present throughout the day and presentation of a doctor’s note or parent’s note does not excuse or change the fact that the student was absent. However, the presentation of a doctor’s note or parent’s note “could” affect how the district views the absence when considering truancy.
The problem, and confusion, with the various definitions of “unexcused” and “nonfunded” lies in our tendency to cross reference absence funding with truancy laws and requirements. As laid out by Texas Education Code §25.087, the only absences that are considered “excused” are those absence types outlined within the Texas Education Code (funded) or any absence considered “acceptable to the teacher, principal, or superintendent.” (TEC §25.087(a)) (unfunded). Any absence that is considered to be “excused” by the charter district should have those considerations outlined within their Student Code of Conduct to ensure consistency in enforcement.
Now here’s where it gets more interesting. The law (TEC §25.095) states that a school district or open-enrollment charter school shall notify a student’s parent if the student is absent from school on 10 or more days or parts of days within a six-month period in the same school year. In addition, Texas Education Code §25.093 states that a parent commits an offense and subject to prosecution if he or she fails to require the child to attend school as required by law and the student is subject to referral to a truancy court for truant conduct under Section 65.003(a), Family Code. Notice that the law only states “absences” and does not distinguish between excused and unexcused because, remember, there is no separation between the two for legal purposes.
Be sure your district’s policy aligns with the Texas Administrative Code 25 which outlines specific situations where a child is not allowed to attend school due to an illness. (https://texreg.sos.state.tx.us/public/readtac$ext.TacPage?sl=R&app=9&p_dir=&p_rloc=&p_tloc=&p_ploc=&pg=1&p_tac=&ti=25&pt=1&ch=97&rl=7)
Unlike traditional ISDs, charter schools are unique in that they don’t have to follow the 90% Rule. As outlined in Section 25.092, typically referred to as “the 90 percent rule,” states that a student in any grade level from kindergarten through grade 12 must be in attendance at least 90% of the year to earn credit. However, Section 25.092 does not apply directly to open-enrollment charter schools. However, some open-enrollment charter schools have included “the 90 percent rule” in their charters and, therefore, must enforce the 90% rule as outlined with Section 25.092.
So, what now?
There are several key thoughts to consider but here are just a few:
- Be sure the expectations of your charter are outlined within your Student Code of Conduct and that all administrators and attendance personnel are on the same page regarding enforcement.
- Spend time educating parents early on. Their understanding of your expectations will create a much more positive communication experience when letters must go out.
- Have a truancy plan and follow it! This should start once a student receives 3 absences, considered unexcused by your district, within a four week period or 10 absences within a six month period.
- Contact your Justice of the Peace, Truancy Officer, or Local Court system before you want to file truancy charges. Having a relationship with those you’ll be filing with will help prepare you for what to expect and possibly prevent incorrect or mishandled truancy filings.
- Consider alternative rewards and consequences as part of your truancy prevention measures. We value communication with our parents but, sometimes, communication is halted if the parent feels that notes to the school are a waste of time and resources if truancy charges will still be pressed.
- Refrain from using the term “excused” as it confuses parents if Truancy charges are still filed for those absences. Instead, only use the term “excused” for absences that align with the 10 absences outlined within the Student Attendance Accounting Handbook as days eligible for funding. Otherwise, code and communicate absences to align with the action such as “Parent Note” or “Medical Absence”.
There are multiple resources to help you in your communication and understanding of truancy and student absence laws. Outside the Texas Education Code and the Texas Administrative Code, The Texas Education Agency has an excellent FAQ sheet that provides some bare-bones resources. (http://tea.texas.gov/WorkArea/DownloadAsset.aspx?id=2147503751) Truancy letter templates. Furthermore, a letter was published in 2016 that provides excellent clarification regarding this topic: https://tea.texas.gov/About_TEA/News_and_Multimedia/Correspondence/TAA_Letters/Attendance,_Admission,_Enrollment_Records,_and_Tuition_-_August_2016/