Chapter 1: The Economic Impact

The impact of truancy and chronic absence can be measured in terms of dollars lost – both to California’s public school districts and to taxpayers.

Truancy and Chronic Absence Have a Huge Impact on Public School District Budgets

California’s public education system has long been underfunded relative to the national average in spending. The state dropped to 49th in the nation in per pupil spending in 2010, spending just $8,482 per pupil – 28% below the national average, according to the 2013 edition of Education Week’s Quality Counts report.32Matthews, C. (2013). State and National Grades Issued for Education Performance, Policy; U.S. Earns a C-plus, Maryland Ranks First for Fifth Straight Year. Bethesda, MD: Education Week. The report examined funding levels in 2010 and thus does not include the impact of higher taxes that voters approved in passing Proposition 30 in November 2012. (http://www.edsource.org/today/2013/california-drops-to-49th-in-school-spending-in-annual-ed-week-report/25379#.Ug0JaFOoUni)

For public school districts that are already financially challenged, the impact of truancy and chronic absence is devastating. The state’s attendance-based school funding formula means that districts with low Average Daily Attendance (ADA)33According to a definition used by Ed Source, ADA in California is the total number of days of student attendance divided by the total number of days in the regular school year. A student attending every day would equal one ADA. ADA is not the same as enrollment, which is the number of students enrolled in each school and district. (Enrollment is determined by counting students on a given day in October.) ADA usually is lower than enrollment due to factors such as students moving, dropping out, or staying home due to illness. The state uses a school district’s ADA to determine its general purpose (revenue limit) and some other funding. (http://www.edsource.org/1077.html). lose millions of dollars every year in state funds. According to our estimates, school districts lost approximately $1.4 billion in the 2010-2011 school year due to student absences.34Calculations are based on 2010-2011 enrollment, ADA and revenue limit data.

In order to better understand the extent of revenue losses to districts based on student absences and to get a more complete picture of attendance rates across the state, DOJ analyzed 2010-2011 education finance data publicly available from the Public Policy Institute of California (PPIC).35PPIC (2013). Data Set: School Finance Model, retrieved from http://www.ppic.org/main/dataset.asp?i=1229. Our analysis of all 962 public school districts in California36Charter schools and county offices of education were excluded from the sample. offers further evidence that student absences come at an enormous cost to school district budgets.

Our calculations estimate total losses of general purpose funds exceeding $325 million for the top ten districts who lost the most funding due to absences in 2010-2011. When calculated by county, three counties lost over a hundred million dollars in general purpose funds due to absences; Los Angeles County lost almost $340 million. Moreover, when measured in per pupil funding, six California school districts – including four elementary school districts – lost over $1,000 per pupil in general purpose funds due to absences.

Figure 1.1: Top Ten School Districts with the Greatest ADA Loss Per Pupil37Calculations are based on 2010-2011 enrollment, ADA and revenue limit data.

Top Ten Districts with the Greatest general purpose funding Losses Per Pupil Lost ADA Revenue Per Pupil
Taft Union High $2,325
Orick Elementary $1,232
Feather Falls Union Elementary $1,219
La Grange Elementary $1,084
Upper Lake Union High $1,035
Kashia Elementary $1,034
Santa Cruz City High $862
Willow Creek Elementary $836
Round Valley Unified $793
Upper Lake Union Elementary $718

Figure 1.2 lists the amount of school funding each county leaves on the table as a result of absenteeism. Due to lack of available records, we were only able to estimate losses due to absenteeism in all grades, not just for elementary school attendance.

Figure 1.2: School District Fiscal Loss by County Due to Absenteeism (2010-2011)

County Total Enrollment (K-12) Total Loss to County Per-Pupil Loss
Alameda 201,527 $44,180,683 $219.23
Alpine 88 $0 $0.00
Amador 4,049 $0 $0.00
Butte 28,651 $8,453,104 $295.04
Calaveras 5,640 $1,297,496 $230.05
Colusa 4,333 $889,612 $205.31
Contra Costa 165,135 $35,840,106 $217.04
Del Norte 3,716 $2,153,928 $579.64
El Dorado 26,556 $6,635,684 $249.88
Fresno 188,139 $56,373,386 $299.64
Glenn 5,369 $1,315,177 $244.96
Humboldt 16,894 $5,069,621 $300.08
Imperial 35,303 $8,721,568 $247.05
Inyo 2,745 $713,284 $259.85
Kern 168,818 $53,868,578 $319.09
Kings 27,246 $7,983,760 $293.03
Lake 9,174 $3,823,537 $416.78
Lassen 3,903 $1,548,430 $396.73
Los Angeles 1,480,672 $339,599,257 $229.35
Madera 28,160 $8,124,525 $288.51
Marin 29,616 $2,343,210 $79.12
Mariposa 2,057 $884,926 $430.20
Mendocino 11,804 $4,152,976 $351.83
Merced 54,234 $13,746,626 $253.47
Modoc 1,529 $825,584 $539.95
Mono 1,646 $0 $0.00
Monterey 69,010 $19,537,191 $283.11
Napa 20,110 $3,826,022 $190.25
Nevada 9,716 $2,419,202 $248.99
County Total Enrollment (K-12) Total Loss to County Per-Pupil Loss
Orange 488,930 $87,649,830 $179.27
Placer 63,829 $13,321,466 $208.71
Plumas 2,081 $0 $0.00
Riverside 413,413 $111,908,777 $270.69
Sacramento 225,867 $55,337,266 $245.00
San Benito 11,155 $3,124,562 $280.10
San Bernardino 397,331 $106,347,544 $267.65
San Diego 449,537 $94,942,504 $211.20
San Francisco 52,829 $19,566,224 $370.37
San Joaquin 127,515 $31,235,706 $244.96
San Luis Obispo 33,531 $6,636,335 $197.92
San Mateo 88,518 $8,939,270 $100.99
Santa Barbara 63,375 $14,422,070 $227.57
Santa Clara 258,170 $34,135,157 $132.22
Santa Cruz 35,879 $11,347,442 $316.27
Shasta 25,351 $8,052,438 $317.64
Sierra 424 $167,352 $394.70
Siskiyou 5,573 $948,268 $170.15
Solano 62,928 $17,873,593 $284.03
Sonoma 64,601 $14,629,530 $226.46
Stanislaus 99,796 $28,714,021 $287.73
Sutter 17,311 $4,724,833 $272.94
Tehama 10,554 $3,006,889 $284.91
Trinity 1,698 $707,882 $416.89
Tulare 96,027 $25,085,485 $261.23
Tuolumne 5,934 $1,456,086 $245.38
Ventura 136,787 $32,874,515 $240.33
Yolo 28,839 $7,432,051 $257.71
Yuba 12,946 $3,410,290 $263.42

School officials who analyzed the impact of absenteeism on their own district budgets reported sobering losses. Ventura County, for example, loses approximately $25 to $40 million in state aid every year because of truancy, according to former Ventura County Superintendent of Schools, Charles Weis.

And, a study by KPBS and the Watchdog Institute found that public schools in San Diego County lost $102 million because of absences in 2009-2010.38Faryon, C., & Crowe, C. (2011). Chronically Absent Students Cost County Schools Millions. KPBS. Retrieved from http://www.kpbs.org/news/2011/jun/27/chronically-absent-students-cost-county-schools-mi/.

As shown in Figure 1.2, three local school districts in North Mendocino County collectively lost more than $500,000 for two consecutive years as a result of chronic absenteeism.39In each district, the cost per student for chronic absenteeism in 2011-2012 was substantial (Willits, $160/per student; Laytonville, $170/per student; Round Valley, $335 per student). ADA loss due to all absences amounted to more than $300/per student in the 2011-2012 school year.

Figure 1.3: Lost ADA Due to Student Absences in
Three Mendocino County School Districts

School District 2010-2011 2011-2012
  Chronically truant students (18+ days) Lost ADA Chronically truant students (18+ days) Lost ADA
Willits Unified 325
(19.6%)
$335,020 273
(16.4%)
$300,930
Laytonville Unified 77
(20.5%)
$80,570 70
(17.5%)
$68,110
Round Valley Unified 102*
(32.8%)
$130,550 114
(34.1%)
$136,185
Total Loss of ADA   $546,140   $505,225

* Data for 12th grade was missing in 2010-2011 query.
(Data source: All figures courtesy of “Safe Schools/Healthy Students Initiative: Building Resiliency in the North County (BRONCO)” presentation, 2013)

Willits Unified School District provides a stark example of the toll that absenteeism takes on school district budgets.40Enrollment in Willits was 1,907 students for the 2011-2012 school year. Source: DataQuest (http://dq.cde.ca.gov/dataquest/), a website maintained through the California Department of Education. As shown in Figure 1.4, the absenteeism of elementary school students cost the district more in the last five years than the absenteeism of middle and high school students combined. Over five years, Willits Unified lost more than $3.2 million to absenteeism.

Figure 1.4: Annual ADA Losses, Willits Unified School District
2007-2008 through 2011-2012

  Elementary School Students (Grades K-6) Middle & High School Students (Grades 7-12) Total ADA loss
2007-2008 $586,460 $294,945 $881,405
2008-2009 $163,485 $392,280 $555,765
2009-2010 $350,210 $231,280 $581,490
2010-2011 $396,550 $266,070 $662,620
2011-2012 $348,110 $244,125 $592,235
Total ADA loss $1,844,815 $1,428,700 $3,273,515

(Data source: Financial and attendance data courtesy of Willits Unified School District, 2013)

For some public school districts in California, even a minor fluctuation in ADA can have a tremendous impact. For Santa Rosa City Schools, a district in Sonoma County, a 1% fluctuation in ADA translates to approximately $837,000 a year. When the district saw a slight uptick in ADA in 2011-2012, it meant $54,000 in added revenue from the prior year, according to an article in The Press Democrat.41http://www.pressdemocrat.com/article/20130113/articles/130119791.

There is both academic and financial benefit to [improving attendance]. It’s not rocket science. Hedy Chang, Director, Attendance Works42Benefield, Student absences have budget impacts for schools, The Press Democrat (January 13, 2013) http://www.pressdemocrat.com/article/20130113/articles/130119791.

When school districts improve their ADA – even by just a half of a percentage point – they recover significant additional state funds. And a Lawndale Elementary School District official noted that, when the attendance of a school in the district improved, not only did the school recover approximately $200,000 more in ADA revenue, but also, its API score rose by 61 points.43District Leadership Survey.

Figure 1.5: Increased ADA and Recovered Funds in Two California Districts

  Compton Unified Livermore Valley Unified
Student population (K-12) 24,781 12,781
% increase of ADA, 2011-2012 1.5% .47%
Recovered ADA funds $2,000,00044http://www.siacabinetreport.com/articles/viewarticle.aspx?article=2669; DataQuest. $302,83545Based on projections from the “Livermore Valley Joint Unified School District Executive Summary” by School Innovations and Achievement; DataQuest.

It is important to note that while ADA is an important variable in discussions of school district funding, it has significant limitations as a measure of student attendance. Indeed, ADA can mask attendance problems such as habitual and chronic truancy, and chronic and severely chronic absenteeism. These limitations are discussed in greater detail later in Chapter 4.

Attendance Rates as an Indicator of Chronic Absence in California Public School Districts

Figure 1.6: Attendance Rates as Indicator of Chronic Absence in California School Districts

However, ADA does offer one indication that chronic absence is a significant issue in far too many of California school districts. According to Attendance Works, districts with an attendance rate of 93% or less likely have a significant problem with chronic absence.46Chang, H. (2013). Make a Measurable Difference: Improve Student Attendance: Exploring the Role of Health Providers. Attendance Works. http://www.attendanceworks.org/wordpress/wp-content/uploads/2013/03/Make-a-Measurable-Difference_CSHC_3-15-2013.pdf.

Applying that benchmark to our attendance rate calculations using PPIC data, 151 school districts or 16% of public school districts in California likely have significant chronic attendance problems.

Clearly, school attendance has real economic costs for school districts throughout California. But the cost of chronic absence – especially of elementary school students – is much larger and widespread. It is felt in the loss of future opportunities for students who, after early disengagement from school, eventually drop out of school.

Truant & Chronically Absent Elementary School Students are More Likely to Become Dropouts

Truancy and chronic absence in elementary school increases the likelihood that a child will later drop out of high school. One landmark study in 1989 used longitudinal absentee records to find that dropouts could be predicted with 66% accuracy based on attendance records in the third grade.47Barrington, B. L., & Hendricks, B. (1989). Differentiating characteristics of high school graduates, dropouts, and nongraduates. The Journal of Educational Research, 82(6), 309-319.; Chang, H. N., & Romero, M. (2008). Present, engaged, and accounted for: The critical importance of addressing chronic absence in the early grades. New York City: National Center for Children in Poverty.; Whitehurst, G. J., & Lonigan, C. J. (2001). Emergent literacy: Development from prereaders to readers. Handbook of early literacy research, 1, 11-29. A more recent study found that for at-risk elementary students who have already missed five days of school, each additional school day missed decreased the student’s chance of graduating by 7%.48Reynolds, 2008. Absences across the sample ranged from 2 to 17 days missed. Results found that each additional absence above five days missed decreases a student's likelihood of graduation by 7%. If the number of absences of a student is increased from five days missed to 10 days missed, the likelihood of this student to graduate will decrease by 35%. Students with the most absences (17 days absent) thus had a graduation likelihood of only 15% at the age of 12.

Another study conducted in 2012 identified chronic absenteeism as one of the strongest predictors of dropping out, even more so than suspensions, test scores or whether a student is older than his or her classmates.49Byrnes, V. & Reyna, R. (2012). Summary of State Level Analysis of Early Warning Indicators. Everyone Graduates Center, Baltimore MD. (final report forthcoming, see http://new.every1graduates.org/wp-content/uploads/2012/05/FINALChronicAbsenteeismReport_May16.pdf.)

This relationship between early truancy and chronic absence and dropping out is not unique to California. A 2013 study of early warning indicators at a school district in Maryland shows first grade students with nine or more absences by the school's third marking period are twice as likely to drop out of high school than their peers with fewer absences.50West, T.C. (2013). Just the Right Mix: Identifying Potential Dropouts in Montgomery County Public Schools Using an Early Warning Indicators Approach. Office of Accountability, Montgomery County Public Schools, MD. Retrieved May 2013 from http://montgomeryschoolsmd.org/departments/sharedaccountability/reports/2013/Just%20the%20Right%20Mix_MCPS_West2013.pdf. By third grade, students with three or more absences in the first marking period are shown to be twice as likely to drop out of high school.51Ibid. As the following section explains, this correlation between chronic absenteeism in elementary school and dropping out of high school is alarming because of the drain high school dropouts have on society.

$46 Billion in Annual Losses to California Due to Dropouts

Figure 1.7: $46.4 Billion in Annual Losses to California Due to Dropouts

High School Dropouts Cost Taxpayers Billions

High school dropouts also account for a disproportionate amount of juvenile crime, which is costly to the state. The juvenile crimes committed by dropouts cost California $1.1 billion per year, according to the California Dropout Research Project.52Belfield, C. & Levin, H. (2009). High School Dropouts and the Economic Losses from Juvenile Crime in California: Policy Brief. California Dropout Research Project, University of California at Santa Barbara, Santa Barbara, CA. Retrieved from http://www.cdrp.ucsb.edu/pubs_reports.htm. The report further suggests that “cutting the dropout rate in half would reduce the number of juvenile crimes in California by 30,000 and save the state $550 million per year.”53Ibid.; Because this estimate only addresses economic losses to California, it excludes losses to the federal government including lost federal income taxes.

All told, high school dropouts cost the state $46.4 billion every year in criminal justice costs, social and medical costs, lost income taxes and associated economic losses, according to a report from the California Dropout Research Project.54Belfield, C. & Levin, H. (2007). The Economic Losses from High School Dropouts in California: Policy Brief. California Dropout Research Project, University of California at Santa Barbara, Santa Barbara, CA. Retrieved from http://www.cdrp.ucsb.edu/pubs_reports.htm. Individual numbers in pie chart have been rounded up.

In this study, net losses to state and local government refers to the amount of money that could be saved from spending on criminal justice, welfare, and healthcare, as well as lost tax revenues, minus public education expenditures saved when students stop attending school.

College graduates in CA earn on average $1,000,000 more than dropouts over their lifetimes.

Figure 1.8: College graduates in CA earn on average $1,000,000 more than dropouts over their lifetimes.57Belfield, C. & Levin, H. (2007) The Economic Losses from High School Dropouts in California. California Dropout Research Project, University of California at Santa Barbara, Santa Barbara, CA. (This number represents the figures for men. The absolute gains for women who graduate from college versus dropouts are similarly large and can exceed $705,000.) Retrieved from http://www.cdrp.ucsb.edu/pubs_reports.htm.

Many economic elements drive the costs of high school dropouts. For example, in another California Dropout Research Project study, more than a third of dropouts studied were not working or in school two years after they were scheduled to graduate.55Rumberger, R. W., & Rotermund, S. (2008). What Happened to Dropouts from the High School Class of 2004?: Statistical Brief. California Dropout Research Project, University of California at Santa Barbara, Santa Barbara, CA. Retrieved from http://www.cdrp.ucsb.edu/pubs_statbriefs.htm. High school dropouts are also two and a half times more likely to be on welfare than their peers who graduated, according to the 1996 Manual to Combat Truancy published by the U.S. Department of Justice and the U.S. Department of Education.56http://www2.ed.gov/pubs/Truancy/index.html.

In past generations, a high school dropout could find a decent-paying job in a factory or in the trades. Today, many factory jobs have increasingly moved overseas and the complexity of technology and engineering involved in the trades require at least a high school education – if not higher training.

  1.    Matthews, C. (2013). State and National Grades Issued for Education Performance, Policy; U.S. Earns a C-plus, Maryland Ranks First for Fifth Straight Year. Bethesda, MD: Education Week. The report examined funding levels in 2010 and thus does not include the impact of higher taxes that voters approved in passing Proposition 30 in November 2012. (http://www.edsource.org/today/2013/california-drops-to-49th-in-school-spending-in-annual-ed-week-report/25379#.Ug0JaFOoUni)
  2.    According to a definition used by Ed Source, ADA in California is the total number of days of student attendance divided by the total number of days in the regular school year. A student attending every day would equal one ADA. ADA is not the same as enrollment, which is the number of students enrolled in each school and district. (Enrollment is determined by counting students on a given day in October.) ADA usually is lower than enrollment due to factors such as students moving, dropping out, or staying home due to illness. The state uses a school district’s ADA to determine its general purpose (revenue limit) and some other funding. (http://www.edsource.org/1077.html).
  3.    Calculations are based on 2010-2011 enrollment, ADA and revenue limit data.
  4.    PPIC (2013). Data Set: School Finance Model, retrieved from http://www.ppic.org/main/dataset.asp?i=1229.
  5.    Charter schools and county offices of education were excluded from the sample.
  6.    Calculations are based on 2010-2011 enrollment, ADA and revenue limit data.
  7.    Faryon, C., & Crowe, C. (2011). Chronically Absent Students Cost County Schools Millions. KPBS. Retrieved from http://www.kpbs.org/news/2011/jun/27/chronically-absent-students-cost-county-schools-mi/.
  8.    In each district, the cost per student for chronic absenteeism in 2011-2012 was substantial (Willits, $160/per student; Laytonville, $170/per student; Round Valley, $335 per student). ADA loss due to all absences amounted to more than $300/per student in the 2011-2012 school year.
  9.    Enrollment in Willits was 1,907 students for the 2011-2012 school year. Source: DataQuest (http://dq.cde.ca.gov/dataquest/), a website maintained through the California Department of Education.
  10.    http://www.pressdemocrat.com/article/20130113/articles/130119791.
  11.    Benefield, Student absences have budget impacts for schools, The Press Democrat (January 13, 2013) http://www.pressdemocrat.com/article/20130113/articles/130119791.
  12.    District Leadership Survey.
  13.    http://www.siacabinetreport.com/articles/viewarticle.aspx?article=2669; DataQuest.
  14.    Based on projections from the “Livermore Valley Joint Unified School District Executive Summary” by School Innovations and Achievement; DataQuest.
  15.    Chang, H. (2013). Make a Measurable Difference: Improve Student Attendance: Exploring the Role of Health Providers. Attendance Works. http://www.attendanceworks.org/wordpress/wp-content/uploads/2013/03/Make-a-Measurable-Difference_CSHC_3-15-2013.pdf.
  16.    Barrington, B. L., & Hendricks, B. (1989). Differentiating characteristics of high school graduates, dropouts, and nongraduates. The Journal of Educational Research, 82(6), 309-319.; Chang, H. N., & Romero, M. (2008). Present, engaged, and accounted for: The critical importance of addressing chronic absence in the early grades. New York City: National Center for Children in Poverty.; Whitehurst, G. J., & Lonigan, C. J. (2001). Emergent literacy: Development from prereaders to readers. Handbook of early literacy research, 1, 11-29.
  17.    Ou & Reynolds, 2008. Absences across the sample ranged from 2 to 17 days missed. Results found that each additional absence above five days missed decreases a student's likelihood of graduation by 7%. If the number of absences of a student is increased from five days missed to 10 days missed, the likelihood of this student to graduate will decrease by 35%. Students with the most absences (17 days absent) thus had a graduation likelihood of only 15% at the age of 12.
  18.    Byrnes, V. & Reyna, R. (2012). Summary of State Level Analysis of Early Warning Indicators. Everyone Graduates Center, Baltimore MD. (final report forthcoming, see http://new.every1graduates.org/wp-content/uploads/2012/05/FINALChronicAbsenteeismReport_May16.pdf.)
  19.    West, T.C. (2013). Just the Right Mix: Identifying Potential Dropouts in Montgomery County Public Schools Using an Early Warning Indicators Approach. Office of Accountability, Montgomery County Public Schools, MD. Retrieved May 2013 from http://montgomeryschoolsmd.org/departments/sharedaccountability/reports/2013/Just%20the%20Right%20Mix_MCPS_West2013.pdf.
  20.    Ibid.
  21.    Belfield, C. & Levin, H. (2009). High School Dropouts and the Economic Losses from Juvenile Crime in California: Policy Brief. California Dropout Research Project, University of California at Santa Barbara, Santa Barbara, CA. Retrieved from http://www.cdrp.ucsb.edu/pubs_reports.htm.
  22.    Ibid.; Because this estimate only addresses economic losses to California, it excludes losses to the federal government including lost federal income taxes.
  23.    Belfield, C. & Levin, H. (2007). The Economic Losses from High School Dropouts in California: Policy Brief. California Dropout Research Project, University of California at Santa Barbara, Santa Barbara, CA. Retrieved from http://www.cdrp.ucsb.edu/pubs_reports.htm. Individual numbers in pie chart have been rounded up.
  24.    Rumberger, R. W., & Rotermund, S. (2008). What Happened to Dropouts from the High School Class of 2004?: Statistical Brief. California Dropout Research Project, University of California at Santa Barbara, Santa Barbara, CA. Retrieved from http://www.cdrp.ucsb.edu/pubs_statbriefs.htm.
  25.    http://www2.ed.gov/pubs/Truancy/index.html.
  26.    Belfield, C. & Levin, H. (2007) The Economic Losses from High School Dropouts in California. California Dropout Research Project, University of California at Santa Barbara, Santa Barbara, CA. (This number represents the figures for men. The absolute gains for women who graduate from college versus dropouts are similarly large and can exceed $705,000.) Retrieved from http://www.cdrp.ucsb.edu/pubs_reports.htm.