The Missouri Supreme Court upheld a law that allows parents to be jailed if their children don’t attend school regularly, which the court defined as every day class is in session. The case involved two single mothers in Lebanon, Mo., who were sentenced to jail after their elementary-school-age children each missed about 15 days of class in the 2021-22 school year. The mothers called in to explain some of the absences, but officials at the Lebanon R-III School District in southwestern Missouri, with about 4,500 students, referred both to prosecutors, reports the Wall Street Journal. The district’s handbook, which parents must acknowledge reading, says students should maintain an attendance rate of at least 90% to prepare children for adulthood and professional life and ensure continuity of learning. State law, however, is more vague.
Missouri’s compulsory education statute requires children to attend school on a “regular basis,” which attorneys for the Lebanon mothers argued is unconstitutionally vague. The mothers weren’t told that illnesses, even when called in by a parent, were counted as unverified absences unless a doctor’s note was presented, their attorneys argued. “Lot of you all have had kids in school. Nobody thinks that they are going to be prosecuted for this,” said Ellen Flottman, the appellate public defender who argued the two mothers’ cases before the state Supreme Court. The Missouri Attorney General’s office said that even minor offenses are violations of the law, and that the school district followed up with the parents as absences accrued. Judge Robin Ransom said the common understanding is that “no Missouri parent would conclude attendance ‘on a regular basis’ means anything less than having their child go to school on those days the school is in session.” The decision comes as school attendance rates have plummeted since the pandemic, and as U.S. students’ math and reading scores have dropped.