THE MISSISSIPPI LEGISLATURE

The Joint Committee on
Performance Evaluation and Expenditure Review



Report # 316

Executive Summary for

The Mississippi School Attendance Officers Program:
A Joint Study by the PEER Committee and the
John C. Stennis Institute of Government
Required by Senate Bill 3019, 1994 Regular Session


November 30, 1994


Introduction

MISS. CODE ANN. Section 37-13-91 (1972) created the position of school attendance officer to enforce the state's compulsory school attendance law. The statute assigned supervisory responsibility for the attendance officers to the state youth court system and the courts retained that assignment until February 1994.

At that time, the Mississippi Supreme Court ruled that assignment of school attendance officers to the judicial branch violated the separation of powers provisions of the Mississippi Constitution, since attendance officers have enforcement authority. In response to the ruling, the 1994 Legislature enacted Senate Bill 3019, which placed the attendance officers under the supervision of the state's district attorneys for one year, until April 7, 1995.

The bill also requires the PEER Committee and the John C. Stennis Institute of Government to submit a report to the House and Senate Education Committees and the House Select Committee on Juvenile and School-Related Crime on the organizational location and administration of school attendance officers, including recommendations addressing which state or local public office is best suited to administer the attendance officers program and the Compulsory Attendance Law. The PEER Committee expanded the study to include a review of the effectiveness of the school attendance officers program.

School Attendance Officer Program Management and Operational Systems

The compulsory school attendance law has historically mandated a decentralized management concept which has a statewide mission to ensure the school attendance of compulsory-age children. The law gives no single individual or agency responsibility for the program's performance.

The law assigns responsibility for attendance officer staff training to the Mississippi Judicial College, thus further fragmenting program responsibility. The Mississippi Association of School Attendance Officers/Consultants, an independent organization of the state's attendance officers, actually provides the coordination, communication, and recordkeeping for this statewide training function, and has assumed a quasi-state program management role for most attendance officers.

The operational profiles of the twenty attendance officer programs now in place have little commonality except for the few statutory provisions by which they must abide and any standardization that has been achieved through the informal actions of the Mississippi Association of School Attendance Officers/Consultants. The majority of these twenty operations are disconnected from one another in goals, objectives, policies, and procedures. Thus, effectiveness and efficiency of the management and operation of the program are directly proportional to individual motivation and management abilities/skills of the local district attorneys and their assigned school attendance officers.

The current climate of fragmentation exists because the state has not established centralized authority and oversight for the school attendance officer program. The lack of central responsibility for program effectiveness has produced a fragmented statewide management approach which does not yield maximum benefit to Mississippi's compulsory-age children. The program has no guidelines for uniform program administration and supervision, and, as a result, has:

Specific problems with program management include the fact that no statewide entity or agency has performed essential management functions (planning, organizing, directing, and controlling), and the program does not have an adequate management information system or personnel management system.

Effectiveness of School Attendance Officers

The compulsory school attendance enforcement program, as it has been implemented for the last ten years, has not had a significant impact on school attendance. Trends in absenteeism and the dropout rate have not shown consistent improvement during the years following passage of the 1982 compulsory school attendance law, which created the role of school attendance officer.

In general, absentee rates for students subject to the compulsory attendance law have remained at approximately the same level (four to six percent) that they had reached prior to implementation of the compulsory school attendance law. However, ninth- and tenth-graders' absentee rates have increased in recent years. Dropout rates, too, have increased for students in the ninth, tenth, and eleventh grades.

Conclusions and Recommendation

The state school attendance enforcement program suffers from significant management and operational problems. The lack of central oversight or requirements for performance tracking has fostered a program which has no formal accountability system. No individual or board has established policy direction or performance standards, nor has any state entity monitored the program to ensure effectiveness.

Compulsory attendance is an educational issue of statewide significance, requiring local program design and flexibility to achieve maximum impact. The Legislature should transfer responsibility for compulsory school attendance enforcement to the State Board of Education for administration by local school districts.

The State Board of Education should establish standards for enrollment and attendance outcomes, credentials of any enforcement personnel, and should monitor school district success in achieving the required levels of performance. School districts should assess need; integrate current attendance officer statutory duties and responsibilities with existing school attendance efforts and resources; and link school attendance service needs with the courts, law enforcement, and community service providers.

To support the school attendance program, the Legislature should appropriate the money now dedicated to school attendance enforcement directly to school districts through the school funding formula. To continue funding school attendance enforcement at the FY 1995 level ($3,274,555), the Legislature could appropriate approximately $140 in supportive services funding for each minimum program teacher unit ($121 added to the supportive services amount in MISS. CODE ANN. Section 37-19-21 plus the additional 15.9% [$19] in fringe benefits implemented through the appropriation). The Legislature should require districts to use the funds to enforce the compulsory attendance law. Such a system would allow maximum flexibility in addressing local needs, while accommodating the need for state-level oversight and accountability to the state's citizenry.

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