School Skippers Given Second Chance under House Bill

April 3, 2012

Investigative Reports

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ae882452f9ee4c8432fe9084a6706c17A freshman S.C. House member is proposing a law that would give high school and younger students who routinely play hooky another shot at passing classes they might otherwise fail because of excessive absenteeism.

Under the bill (H. 4764) by Rep. Joshua Putnam, R-Anderson,  students with 10 or more unexcused absences in a course required for high school graduation or promotion to the next grade could, upon the recommendation of the teacher and approval of the school’s principal, take a “knowledge-based” test of the course.

If the student passes the test, the bill would require that he or she be “reinstated in the course as a student in good standing with all unexcused absences to date waived.”

In a recent interview with The Nerve, Putnam said he believes his proposal would help lower the state’s dropout rate and provide at-risk students with an alternative to evening and weekend classes.

“If they’re diligent within their work, it gives them a little hope in the end of the tunnel to work with the teacher and principal and school,” he said.

Putnam, 23, was elected in a special election in August to fill the unexpired seat of longtime Rep. Dan  Cooper, R-Anderson and former chairman of the budget-writing House Ways and Means Committee, who retired to work for a government consulting firm.

As of the 2009-10 school year, the latest year for which data was available, South Carolina’s high school dropout rate was 2.9 percent, according to an S.C. Department of Education report. In that year, 6,265 out of 212,790 students in grades nine through 12 dropped out.

Of the dropouts, 27 percent left school in the ninth grade, 29 percent in the 10th grade, 25 percent in the 11th grade, and 19 percent in the 12th grade, according to the report.

The state’s graduation rate is 73.6 percent, S.C. Department of Education spokesman Jay Ragley earlier told The Nerve.

Putnam said his bill wouldn’t change existing law and wouldn’t force school districts to adopt the testing policy. But he believes it would help improve accountability because principals would have to approve giving the tests.

Some in the education field, however, have concerns about Putnam’s proposal.

Mary Carmichael, executive director of the Public Charter School Alliance of South Carolina, told The Nerve that the bill potentially could compromise a school’s eligibility for federal funding because student attendance is a requirement for the funding.

“South Carolina chooses attendance as a factor to be assessed on, and we need a 96 percent attendance rate for the (state) report card,” she said.

Carmichael said schools are accountable for student absences; and giving leeway to struggling students, as proposed in Putnam’s bill, might damage their academic standing in the long run.

Kershaw County Schools Superintendent Frank Morgan told The Nerve that although the bill has good intentions, it conflicts with existing laws. He also said districts already have attendance rules that they are required to enforce.

As an example of conflicting legislation, Morgan cited House bill 3164, which would require students to attend classes to receive their beginner driver’s permit or driver’s license, and keep their driving privileges. The bill, sponsored by Rep. Tom Young, R-Aiken, passed the House last year and the Senate Education Committee last month, though it is being contested.

Morgan said assuming both H. 3164 and H. 4764 became law, he wonders how school districts could implement them at the same time. Putnam’s bill would grant a waiver for unexcused absences contingent upon passing a test, while in contrast, Young’s proposal would punish students for missing classes, he said.

Putnam’s bill, which was introduced Feb. 9, was referred to the House Education and Public Works Committee. A public hearing on the proposal has not been held.

Reach Hamer at adia@thenerve.org.