Brentin Mock is a staff writer at CityLab. He was previously the justice editor at Grist.
To solve high school truancy, don’t suspend kids; compensate them.
When I read that my old high school in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, suspended half of its student population for excessive absences—defined as roughly a week's worth of unexcused truancy over the last quarter—my first thought was, Only half?
School absence was a huge problem when I was a student there in the mid-90s. Not going to class was arguably a class of its own, and one that many of my peers mastered. (No comment on whether I was part of the problem.)
But to be clear, I’m not taking truancy lightly. It’s a serious issue, then and now. I sympathize with Harrisburg High’s new principal, Lisa Love, whose actions have made headlines internationally. The problems she’s inherited go beyond attendance to poor test scores and low graduation rates; she can’t deal with either of those problems when kids don’t show up. She told the local press that she took the “radical” step of suspending over 500 students to send a message to parents and the community, and the district’s superintendent backed the mass suspension. “In order for us to get different results, we have to do something different,” Superintendent Sybil Knight-Burney told PennLive.com.
The problem: Suspending kids who don’t go to school isn’t “different.” That’s what they did when I was there. At risk of stating the obvious here, suspension is no punishment for those who are already voluntarily suspending themselves. Suspension is better than criminalizing truancy, but it won’t necessarily inspire kids to start coming to homeroom. For that kind of inspiration—and inspiration is truly what’s needed here—educators will have to come up with something more creative, and competitive.
And here it is: We need to pay high school students to go to school. I don’t mean some punk-ass weekly or monthly allowance, or a gift card for Dave & Busters. I’m talking about a deposit of somewhere in the ballpark of $50 to $100, every school day. That’s not for making honor roll; it’s just for making it to school in the morning and staying until the end of the day. Yes, compensated just for showing up. Think Universal Basic Income—but for kids.
This is my own unsolicited proposal. I promise my 8th grade son did not put me up to this (though he enthusiastically endorses it). But as crazy as it sounds, I’m pretty convinced this is the only solution to keeping as many kids as possible in school, ensuring timely graduation, and disrupting the school-to-prison pipeline. I see this solution as applicable exclusively for public high school students. And before you post your rebuttal—as I’m sure there are many—please hear out my five-point argument:
1: Paying kids gives them a financial incentive to pursue perfect attendance.
I know what you’re going to say. “What they get out of going to school is an education! That should be motivation enough!”
Yeah, but it’s not. Which is why we’ve been talking about this problem for decades and losing. Others will insist that paying kids to do what they should be doing will spoil their work ethic—except paying people to do what they should be doing is what already happens in the real world. It’s called going to work.
Teenagers are the only people on the planet who we ask to go places they don’t want to be, to do work they don’t want to do, starting at an hour in which they are supposed to be asleep—and we not only require them to do it for free, but we require them to like it.
This is not preparing them for the real world. This is more like preparing them for prison. That’s the only other place in North America where people are held against their will to do unpaid work.
2: Paying kids will allow schools to compete with the not-going-to school market.
What’s often overlooked in discussions about truancy is the fact that there is a very large market for not going to school. You can kick that story about how you went to school every day as a kid because it was an honor if you want. But you and I know the truth: You went to school every day because where else were you gonna go? Church? Mr. Adams’s 5 & Dime store? That playground with two swings and a half-a-slide? You went to school every day because you had no choice.
Today’s kids have options, especially when the parents are working two and three jobs and can’t be home to regulate. For one, they can go to legit work—and seriously, for many low-income families that is the only choice. More uncomfortably, kids have the option to go to the corner and deal drugs, which is a much more lucrative prospect than math class. Most cities would happily pay now for schools to recapture these teens from the block so that they won’t be caught up in the criminal justice system later.
Not to mention, there are the myriad entrepreneurial opportunities offered via the internet that did not exist in decades past, further incentivizing kids to pull a Zuckerburg and drop out early. A kid with a laptop can extract cash via YouTube, Snapchat, eBay, and all manner of sites and apps. Hell, you can make a gang of money just playing video games and talking about it, Pewdie Pie-style. Some innovative teenager might use his time off from school while suspended to make a mixtape online that will go viral and make him into a rap star. Oh, I forgot: Chance the Rapper already did that.
In other words: The not-going-to-school market is boomin’, and schools are competing with it whether they acknowledge that market or not.
3: Salaried students will have a financial incentive to actually perform and behave well.
Just as it does in the adult working world, putting kids on salary will fix a lot of behavior problems. Kids won’t want to get suspended if it means their pay will get docked. Augmenting their base wages with daily performance bonuses—say, an extra $1 to $5 for achieving daily micro-goals like asking questions in class and doing extra assignments—could further entice kids to give classtime their all. (Those kinds of “secondary quest” rewards would also allow the classroom experience to more closely resemble more stimulating activities like videogames.)
4: Fewer parents will feel pressured to put their kids in a private or charter school.
It’s paramount that the daily stipend be applied to public high schools exclusively. For one, these are the schools that usually take in kids from families at the bottom of the economic spectrum. With this kind of financial enticement, though, more families of all incomes would consider putting or keeping their kids in public schools, especially if the stipends produce the kind of academic and behavioral outcomes projected above.
And to be clear, I don’t think a stipend should be available to children of families of all tax brackets. There should probably be a household income cap on families that are able to participate in the program, with an opt-out clause for middle-class families (perhaps 80 percent of AMI) who don’t need their kids to accept the stipend, but who might otherwise qualify for it. This way, we’ll know that returning higher-income families—those who normally would flee to private/charters—are there for the educational outcomes, not for the checks.
5: Kids in K through 8—especially middle school kids—will have something to look forward to.
We know that a lot of students coming up through the lower grades are anticipating high school more for reasons related to puberty than academics. But let’s start seeding in their heads as early as third grade that they’ll get paid once they hit the higher grades: By middle school they’ll be developing study habits, learning how to stay organized, and getting all the goofball stuff out of their system. They understand that once 9th grade arrives, getting good grades and perfect attendance is serious business.
There are obviously some big questions on implementation that need addressing: How much is this going to cost? Who’s going to pay for all of this?
Let’s just take Harrisburg, for example. If you paid each of the 1,100 students in that high school $100 per day, it would cost almost $20 million—just for one high school. (The district’s current annual budget is $143 million.) To pay that amount to the 15 million students currently enrolled in public high schools across the U.S., that would come out to about (gulp) $270 billion. The U.S. currently spends roughly $100 billion on education, compared to $609 billion on defense.
It’s a heavy lift, indeed. It would require significant subsidizing not only from the federal government, but from the private sector as well. Banks and Wall Street would be the natural partners to pick up most of this tab. The students’ stipends would not be a cash handout. Instead, it should be a direct deposit into a checking and/or savings account of a bank of the family’s choice.
Participating banks should not only match public funds invested into this program, but set up banking courses in the high schools to teach financial literacy. Some kids will blow their dough on a new pair of J’s every week; others will save and invest at least part of their income and use it for college. Having these banking courses would be instrumental in determining how the kids use their money. And of course, the politics of such a proposition might become its own circus. If conservatives are quick to dismiss it, let’s just call the stipends “school vouchers.”
Conceptually, we’re already there. Versions of this stipend program have already have been tried, on a more modest scale. In Boston, high school students were giving a whopping $25 a semester for perfect attendance. Memphis has a progressive program that offers all kinds of financial bonuses, ranging from $40 to $150 a month, for good grades and attendance. Cincinnati and Camden, New Jersey, both started programs like this as well; so did France and Sweden. But none of these put out more than $150 to $200 monthly. I’m afraid that might not be enough in today’s economic climate, though, to compete with the market for ditching school.
For those who insist on sticking to their story about how they had to walk 22.3 miles one way, through the snow, and it was an honor—those people are lying. They hated going to school just as much as kids do today. Half of you parents probably pay your kids to go to school anyway, in some form or another. Stop double-taxing yourself.
And someday, future kids will complain about the puny $1,000-per-day stipend they get as their grandparents explain to them how they used to have to go to school for no pay. The looks on their faces will be priceless.