Accountability · Finding the Right School · School Choice

Should Parents Be Allowed To Pull Kids Out of School For Family Vacations, Sports or Other Extracurriculars? Should Schools Be Allowed To Penalize Them For It?

My 5th grade daughter had all five days off from school for Presidents’ Week. We took a family trip to Washington DC. We visited the Washington Monument, the Lincoln Memorial, the Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial, the White House, the Capitol Building, the World War II and Vietnam Memorials, and the Supreme Court building. Many photos were taken. We also hit the Air and Space, and the American History Smithsonian Museums.

We didn’t see close to everything that we wanted to (no pandas!) because we needed to return to NYC on Tuesday. Both my 8th grade son and my teacher-husband are at schools that resumed classes on Wednesday.

Attendance is a very, very big deal in New York City schools. It is a major piece of the admissions rubrics at selective middle and high schools (which is why some groups are lobbying to have it removed – under the guise of helping the less fortunate, of course).

Some parents are so obsessive that they send feverish and even vomiting kids to school, lest a single sick day ruin their entire future, prompting a few principals to send out strongly worded letters about the dangers (and selfishness) of such actions.

At the other end of the spectrum are parents who see nothing wrong with tacking on a few extra days at the start and end of various vacations, as well as pulling kids out of class for athletic competitions, outside artistic performances, and/or religious holidays.

NYC is currently plastered in billboards warning about the dangers of missed attendance as part of their School Every Day Campaign.

I’m not saying that the Department of Education isn’t genuinely concerned about the lost learning. But let’s not forget a very important detail: Traditional and charter public schools receive their funding based on how many kids are physically in the building. An absent child is an absent pay-out. Put enough of those together, and schools start losing money for afterschool programs and even teachers.

As a result, some schools are beginning to threaten students who have missed too many days with failure, repeating a year, and even expulsion.

Is that fair? As long as a child is keeping up with their schoolwork and performing well on tests, should a school have the right to dictate their attendance? The law currently says no. But there are always workarounds, such as making class participation a part of the final grade. You can’t participate if you aren’t there. Plus, teachers can refuse to assign homework in advance, or accept it late, which could lower a grade into potentially failing territory.

Are schools justified in taking such actions for the common good, if every child who blithely skips multiple days is also responsible for threatening the overall budget and thus everyone’s educational experience?

As indicated above, I try to be as responsible as possible with my children’s absences. Yes, they skipped a day for their grandmother’s funeral. And I allowed my son to take an – excused – absence when he had the once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to perform with his dance school at the historic Apollo Theater.

Also, like The Simpsons, I believe that travel “embiggens” a student’s education (as evidenced by our nerdy DC itinerary, above). There is much to learn by visiting other cities and countries, and sometimes it absolutely is worth a missed day of regular school.

We talk a lot of about accountability here: The Department of Ed’s accountability, the teachers’ and administrators’ accountability.

But I believe parents have accountability, too. We are accountable for showing our children what we consider valuable.

In the great scheme of things, my son wouldn’t have missed all that much from skipping a day of school. But by returning early from Washington DC, I hope I was showing him that I believe education and responsibility are values that trump even squeezing the last drop out of a great vacation.

Once again, that was my choice to make. Just as it is should be for all other families.

It’s yet another reason for why everyone should be allowed to choose a school that reflects their values, with attendance policies simply another item, along with test scores, diversity, snow days, dual language, and safety, on a long and uniquely personal list of what makes a “good” school.

What do you think?

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