Childhood education in our country has gone from private and optional to public and mandatory. However, schools were never intended, and are not equipped, to replace parents. Local control of education at the state, district, and neighborhood level is designed to ensure that schools remain an extension of the child’s parents at home—not a replacement for them. Unfortunately, it appears that Utah has moved away from this ideal. As attendance at government schools was legally made mandatory, the government subsequently created criminal penalties for failure to attend.
Compulsory education laws in Utah make it a class B misdemeanor for parents to keep children absent from school without a government-defined “valid” excuse, thereby turning parents into criminals for not taking full advantage of government schools on each and every government-assigned school day. A class B misdemeanor carries the possibility of jail time, placing parents behind bars if their children are not behind their desks.
Using data obtained through a records request, we looked at truancy actions in Utah courts over the past ten years. Interestingly, actions against students through the juvenile court system have declined significantly. However, while infrequent, court actions against parents have actually increased slightly in some cases. At the bottom of this post are graphs showing ten years of data for cases where charges were filed against parents for violation of compulsory education laws and penalties of jail or fines were imposed. This does not include cases where charges were filed and deals were made without imposing any formal penalties. The data indicates that in the past decade, 20 parents were jailed and 171 fined for violations of Utah compulsory education laws.
As school budgets become tight, the funding formulas that depend on student attendance create strong financial incentives for districts to compel and enforce attendance. Anecdotal evidence suggests that districts are tightening up attendance policies and becoming stricter with how excused absences are issued. This may be part of the reason court actions against students seem to have declined in recent years. However, schools may be increasing enforcement against parents, as fines and jail sentences seem to have increased slightly.
Ultimately, parents are accountable to the source of their stewardship over their children—and that source is not government. Laws like these, while well-meaning, confuses the relationship between government and students, and children and their parents.
Explore the charts below to see the recent history of truancy actions against parents and youth in Utah courts.