The trouble with fining families whose kids skip school for vacation

In 2013, the UK decided to crack down on one errant corner of British society: parents who took their kids out of school to go on vacation.

The government changed its regulations to authorize local councils to fine parents £60 ($76) per child per unauthorized absence, a figure that would double if not paid within 21 days. Those who refused to pay could be prosecuted facing a fine of up to £2,500 and a jail sentence of up to three months.

The policy has not been particularly effective. Since the fines were put in place, the number of authorized absences has fallen off a cliff, while the number of kids missing school days for vacations has soared:

In total, more than a quarter of unauthorized absences were due to families heading out for vacations in the 2015-2016 school year.

A school union representative told the BBC that parents were responding to vacation pricing, which rises dramatically during school vacation. Some have called on the UK government to limit price hikes by travel firms during school holidays.

While everyone loves a bargain, the UK government—like most governments in the world—wants kids to stay in school. According to a Department of Education spokesperson, missing school could lead to disastrous consequences in performance on high-stakes tests (called GCSEs), and in life:

The rules are clear – children should not be taken out of school without good reason. Evidence shows that every extra day of school missed can affect a pupil’s chances of achieving good GCSEs, which has a lasting effect on their life chances.

Jessica Lahey, a middle school teacher in New Hampshire and author, noted in the New York Times that as a parent and a teacher she was of two minds on the subject. As a parent, she had taken her kids out of school for family events that she thought warranted the absences. But as a teacher, she was aware of the amount of work it takes to prepare a class, and also to catch a kid up (who may or may not be having a lovely time in the Bahamas). She writes:

I have seen the havoc these absences can wreak on students and their teachers. It takes a lot of time to pre-plan for student absences, to package work that will approximate missed lessons, chase children down for that work, and invest extra one-on-one time in makeup sessions.

Policies in the US vary by state, with students considered “truant” after one day or up to “10 half-days” of unexcused absence, the Guardian found by calling all 50 states. “[I]n 40 states and the District of Columbia, parents of repeat offenders can face fines—anywhere from $20 to $1,500, plus court fees—or short-term imprisonment,” the investigation found.

One UK father took his plea to the Supreme Court. He sued to overturn a £120 fine by his local council for an unauthorized school absence after taking his daughter to Disney World in Florida in 2015. He won, but on appeal to the Supreme Court, a panel of judges said they would reserve judgement for a later date. Government lawyers representing the Department for Education said it would be “absurd” to allow parents to remove their children from state schools “when the sun is out.” Lawyers for Platt said going forward with the penalty would “criminalise parents on an unprecedented scale,” given that there were more than four million unauthorized absences in 2015.

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