AUGUSTA — A proposal to extend the enforcement of truancy laws to children 5 and older received the unanimous support of the Legislature’s Committee on Education and Cultural Affairs this week.

Senate Majority Leader Nate Libby, D-Lewiston

The bill, vetoed in 2015 and 2017 by former Gov. Paul LePage, is likely to become law this year with Democrats in control of the Legislature and the governor’s office.

Senate Majority Leader Nate Libby’s measure has backing from the Maine Principals’ Association, the Maine School Boards Association, the Maine School Superintendents Association and the Maine Education Association.

Libby, a Lewiston Democrat, said he pressed the issue because too many of the youngest students fail to show up too often.

“There is a clear, foundational link between early childhood education and success in school, but that’s endangered — and in some cases impossible to make up — if a student is missing 30 or more days of school each year,” Libby said in a prepared statement.

He said students who are 5- or 6-years-old and miss too much school “are learning a bad habit which can haunt them the rest of their time in school, if not all through life.”

More than 16 percent of Maine’s public school students were chronically absent during the last academic year, state statistics show.

The state Department of Education has been focusing ever more attention on the problem because, it said, “current research shows chronic absenteeism has a clear relationship to negative consequences for students, including lower achievement, disengagement from school, course failure, and increased risk of dropping out.”

Steven Bailey, executive director of Maine School Management Association, told lawmakers that Libby’s bill “is aimed, of course, not at the child, but at the child’s parents. The scenario it is attempting to address is one where parents enroll a child, but fail to make sure that child attends regularly.”

“Research demonstrates that the earlier a child attends a public school on a regular basis, the more likely they are learn and grow and be successful,” Holly Couturier, the assistant executive director of the principals’ association, told legislators at a recent public hearing.

Libby’s proposal was spurred in part by Lewiston’s problems keeping students in school. In recent years, as many as one in five kindergartners in Lewiston were often absent — a bit higher rate than for older students. 

Libby told the education panel that Lewiston has “been struggling to address students’ chronic absence from school.”

“In our case, the school department employs a truancy officer who spends their day in the field checking in on truant students and their families to problem-solve the underlying issues causing chronic absence,” the senator said. He said the goal is “to ensure students enrolled in public school are attending as many days of the year as possible.”

One problem, though, is that state law “prevents truancy resources from being deployed to arguably the most important part of the student population: 5- and 6-year-olds,” Libby said.

He said his bill “seeks only to address chronic absenteeism among our youngest students, nothing more and nothing less.”

But, Libby said, it doesn’t step on a parent’s right “to make decisions about student attendance in public school, or in private school or in home school.”

Unlike the two previous versions of the measure, Libby said, the new proposal headed to the Maine Senate and House, parents would no longer be required to consult school officials before opting to unenroll a young child from a public school.

It would, however, impose truancy laws on any children who are enrolled, he said. Youngsters are not required to attend school in Maine until they are seven.

In his last veto of a similar bill by Libby, LePage said that instead of requiring the youngest children to attend, schools should seek to improve attendance and encourage engagement by adopting programs that inspire students.

Former Gov. Paul LePage

“I am all in for efforts that inspire students to come to school every day, excited to learn,” the ex-governor said.

The Maine Parent Teacher Association’s legislative chair, Virginia Mott of Lakeville, told legislators recently that “regular attendance is important not only to an individual child but also to the other children in the class.”

“Frequent absenteeism disrupts learning for all the children,” she said, because a teacher’s attention is taken “from moving the class forward to helping students who’ve been absent catch up.”

“It’s normal to work around the occasional few days missed due to illness, but frequent or extended interruptions in attendance interfere with everyone’s learning,” Mott said.

[email protected]

Only subscribers are eligible to post comments. Please subscribe or to participate in the conversation. Here’s why.

Use the form below to reset your password. When you've submitted your account email, we will send an email with a reset code.

filed under: