Truancy’s Root Cause

Imagine that your company gives away its only product. Many consider your product the very key to a better life and yet, ultimately, 50 percent of your potential clients fail to take full advantage of your product.

This is the case right now in New Mexico’s schools and the truancy portion of the crisis has been receiving increased attention recently (including an article in the Daily-Times on June 8th). Although taxpayers pay more than $8,000 per student annually and students’ families are charged nothing to attend, increasing numbers of students are dropping out or going truant.

New Mexico’s real high school dropout rate – the number of children who enter but do not finish high school – is close to 50 percent. The truant crisis is a similar, related problem and unfortunately all too many regular truants are at risk of dropping out altogether.

So why are schools having trouble keeping children in the classroom? If the schools were like most businesses that had to serve and keep customers (as opposed to being a government monopoly), they would be in danger of going out of business.

First and foremost, there is no real competition in education. While some students do attend private schools, this is not really an option for many parents. More importantly, even if significant numbers of students leave the system to attend private schools, the school faces virtually no negative repercussions in the form of lost revenues.

Undoubtedly, parents bear significant responsibility for keeping their children in school and part of the blame must be laid at the feet of irresponsible parenting. This is why punitive truancy laws exist. Nonetheless, using the force of law to keep kids in school is not a viable long-term solution to our truancy or dropout problems.

The real problem is that schools, by there nature, are not keeping large numbers of children engaged because they are not designed with their diverse needs in mind. Rather, schools are institutions set up (and the tendency is reinforced by mandated testing) to treat all children the same. Teachers do the best they can to accommodate different learning styles, but sometimes it is simply not possible to accommodate all learning styles in a single classroom.

So, what can be done to keep kids in school? First and foremost, we must dispense once and for all with the notion that “schools” should be funded. Instead of funding schools themselves, we must fund students and their needs. This means that money should flow through the students instead of bureaucracies.

The idea of funding education through students as opposed to schools may sound like a radical one, but until schools must treat children and their parents as customers and compete for their business, children who don’t feel served by the system will resort to the radical and harmful steps of truancy and dropping out.

In an attempt to mitigate this problem, the Rio Grande Foundation is actively working with legislators to give individuals and businesses who pay taxes to New Mexico to take a credit against a portion of their tax burdens in order to give scholarships to allow children in low-income families to attend the school of their choice.

Such a program would be a huge step forward for many of New Mexico’s neediest children, but more needs to be done to address the dropout and truancy problems. We must focus on setting up a real education marketplace in which schools compete and innovate to attract students while making education interesting and useful enough to keep them coming back.

Education is important, not only for our children, but as a means of securing the economic future of New Mexico. It is time to fund the education needs of our children, not the schools that are failing them.

Paul Gessing is the President of New Mexico’s Rio Grande Foundation. The Rio Grande Foundation is an independent, non-partisan, tax-exempt research and educational organization dedicated to promoting prosperity for New Mexico based on principles of limited government, economic freedom and individual responsibility.