Ohio Lawmakers Propose Incentivizing School Attendance with Cash Payments

A new bill aimed at addressing chronic absenteeism is being spearheaded by bipartisan sponsors who are taking inspiration from novelist Jean Shepherd’s famous quote, “In God we trust, all others pay cash.”

The proposed two-year pilot program, introduced by Republican state Rep. Bill Seitz and Democratic Rep. Dani Isaacsohn from Cincinnati, aims to combat the long-standing issue of school attendance in the state, which has been exacerbated by the global pandemic. The program would involve cash transfers being sent to kindergarteners and ninth graders to incentivize and boost school attendance.

During a hearing with the House Primary & Secondary Education Committee, Isaacsohn emphasized the urgent need for action, declaring, “This is the number one issue we are facing in education. It is an absolute emergency, and we need to act like it.”

According to the Ohio Department of Education and Workforce, prior to the pandemic, the rate of chronic absenteeism among kindergarteners, defined as missing 10% or more of a school year for any reason, was 11%. However, in the last school year, this rate skyrocketed to 29%.

Similarly, the percentage of students chronically absent during their freshman year of high school increased from 15% pre-pandemic to over 31%.

Isaacsohn emphasized that this trend is not limited to Ohio, stating, “That is not just Ohio. There has been a cultural shift all over the country away from regular, 90-plus percent school attendance.”

If approved, the pilot program would have two parts. The first part would allocate a total of $1.5 million over two years to eligible school districts, enabling up to two schools to distribute cash transfers to students or their parents/guardians. The districts would have the flexibility to decide how the funds are distributed, whether it be a biweekly transfer of $25 per student, quarterly transfers of $150, or an annual payment of $500, according to Seitz’s statement to the committee.

The second part of the program would establish a base award of $250 for graduating students from qualifying high schools, with an additional $250 to $750 for students with GPAs of 3.0 or above.

School districts would qualify for the program if they receive federal Title 1 funding and rank in the lowest 20% for graduation rates among traditional public schools, as currently outlined in the bill. However, any district wishing to participate in the pilot program would still need to apply.

Seitz insisted that both rural and urban school districts must be included, selecting those with the highest quartile of chronic absenteeism based on the most recent state report card ratings. He stated, “So, we’re going to pick sort of the worst of the worst on attendance and see if we can move the needle.”

The pilot program is a response to Ohio’s persisting challenges in ensuring students’ consistent school attendance and successful graduation. Seitz mentioned several previous local-level initiatives such as pizza days and extended playground hours, which have failed to yield significant results.

Some Republican members of the committee expressed concerns about rewarding students for fulfilling their basic obligations. State Rep. Beth Lear, R-Galena, criticized the program as potentially encouraging an entitlement mentality among young people, stating, “I don’t see this as rewarding good behavior, I see this as rewarding bad behavior.”

State Rep. Josh Williams, R-Sylvania, went further, questioning the logic of paying students to comply with the law, especially considering the existence of truancy laws and parental consequences. He even raised the hypothetical scenario of offering financial incentives to prevent crimes, asking the co-sponsors, “Are we really going to start that trend where we’re going to go in and invest to prevent people from committing crimes?”

Seitz defended the program by highlighting the ineffectiveness of truant officers as a deterrent for chronic absenteeism. He argued that while laws against crimes like rape have a deterrent effect, the same cannot be said for chronic absenteeism. He stated, “The deterrent effect of a truant officer is about zero because most districts don’t even have them, or if they do, they can’t even begin to do the job.”

State Rep. Sean Brennan, D-Parma, a former teacher, agreed with Seitz’s perspective, asserting that creating an incentive to prioritize classroom attendance would compensate for the weak enforcement of truancy laws. He commented, “The truancy laws and attendance laws we have in Ohio quite frankly just don’t have a whole lot of teeth.”

The sponsors also highlighted the broader benefits of the program for the state. Chronic absenteeism and high school non-completion not only hinder students’ future economic prospects but also have negative consequences for the state as a whole. Isaacsohn explained, “They have lower lifetime earnings, therefore they’re paying lower taxes, they have higher rates of incarceration and interactions with the criminal justice system, higher utilization of public benefits. So this is a situation of let’s pay now, so we don’t have to pay later.”

If the pilot program demonstrates success in addressing absenteeism and improving graduation rates in Ohio, Seitz mentioned that future funding for similar programs may become more self-sustaining, reducing the necessity of funding dropout recovery schools in the state.

The bill will undergo public hearings in the House Primary & Secondary Committee to solicit comments from both opponents and proponents before proceeding to a vote.

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