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The Rationale for Truancy Laws

Compulsory education began about sixty years ago and was strongly influenced by labor unions who were trying to keep children from working. The participation of children in the labor force kept adult wages low. Compulsory attendance in schools also lifted some authority of parents over their children to the state, as parents could no longer force their children to work. The state's authority in school attendance was underscored in Prince v. Massachusetts (1944). In this case, the Supreme Court decided that the state had the right to uphold child labor laws and parents' authority could not preempt that of the state. Therefore, children had to attend school whether their parents supported education or not.

So while education became a requirement for children under a certain age (currently 16 in most states), failure to attend school—or truancy—began creating other problems. 

Truancy and Links to Other Crimes

Links between truancy and substance abuse, vandalism, auto theft, and gang behavior have all been established in criminology literature. The link between truancy and later, violent offending has been established in studies that examine male criminality.

Residents have also put pressure on schools and lawmakers to tighten truancy laws as groups of young people loitering in public during school hours often appear threatening. In Tacoma, Washington, an increase in truancy was associated with an increase in juvenile perpetrated property crimes, such as burglary and vandalism. This increase in juvenile daytime crime led to a program targeting the enforcement of truancy laws in this state.

Truancy and Academic Achievement 

Those school districts with the highest truancy rates also have the lowest academic achievement rates. This link is usually established through truancy policies which deem automatic failure in courses where students are regularly absent. Therefore, students who do not attend school on a regular basis are unlikely to graduate from high school. Recency of immigration seems to have important implications for high school dropout rates. Researchers have linked this correlation to parental attitudes toward education. However, coming from countries where education is not highly valued, parents may not encourage their children to attend school, increasing the truancy rate and also increasing the drop out rate.

Failure at the high school level not only affects the individual, but it also affects society. Affected students cannot attend college, are more likely to have low paying jobs and feel political apathy; they then can constitute a loss in tax revenue, may experience health problems, and place a strain on social services.

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