By Jeremy B. White

Emphasizing that young students who frequently miss school are far more likely to fall behind and commit crimes later in life, California Attorney General Kamala Harris and half a dozen lawmakers introduced an anti-truancy bill package on Monday.

The legislative effort ties to a report from Harris' office that depicts the repercussions of an estimated 1 million truant elementary school students a year, good for a 29.6 percent truancy rate among California youngsters. More than 250,000 elementary school students missed at least 10 percent of the year, or more than 18 days of learning.

Missing a substantial amount of school carries cascading consequences, Harris said. Children who are already behind reading level by third grade are four times as likely to drop out of high school. In turn, high school dropouts suffer higher unemployment rates and become more likely to turn to crime.

"There's a direct connection between education and public safety," Harris said.

School districts also incur a quantifiable economic cost, Harris said, given that funding is linked to school attendance rates. The report estimated that absent students cost districts $1.4 billion annually.

Legislators promoted five bills focused on data collection and reporting, from requiring the state Department of Education to track truancy rates to having district attorneys explain the outcomes of school attendance-related prosecution.

A bill by Assemblywoman Joan Buchanan, D-Alamo, would require all counties to create entities called school attendance review boards, which some counties already use to give chronically absent students an alternative to entering the juvenile justice system. A bill by Assemblyman Chris Holden, D-Pasadena, would have existing school attendance boards share more data.

Harris and lawmakers acknowledged that enhanced data collection will not by itself affect the outside issues that keep kids out of school, from poor health to volatile homes to overworked parents. But they said it is a starting point, allowing policymakers to understand why desks stay empty.

"If we don't know what the problem is or where the problem is, we can't solve it," said Buchanan.

Low-income students whose families lack the resources to compensate for missed classwork suffer acutely from skipping school, lawmakers said, as do children of color. Sen. Bill Monning, D-Carmel, called addressing early childhood truancy key to breaking the cycle of poorly performing students churning through the criminal justice system.

"Stemming the tide of truancy is a critical component to disrupt the school-to-prison pipeline," Monning said.

(c)2014 The Sacramento Bee