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SALT LAKE CITY — A Utah lawmaker wants to remove the threat of criminal prosecution for parents of truant students.
SB45 sponsored by Sen. Al Jackson, R-Highland, received a favorable recommendation from the Senate Education Committee and passed a third vote in the Utah Senate on Wednesday and now moves to the House.
"Government shouldn't be telling parents how to raise their kids," Jackson said in an interview with KSL.
The bill would remove language that parents would face a class B misdemeanor if their school-aged child receives too many unexcused absences.
Jackson, whose son, Frank, is a star basketball player at Lone Peak High School, received a letter last fall from school administrators calling attention to what the letter called his son's "lack of consistent attendance."
The letter, dated Sept. 21, 2015, goes on to say, "It is a class B misdemeanor for a parent to knowingly fail to enroll a student in school who is age six to eighteen, or refuse to respond to a written request for parental support in resolving attendance problems."
Jackson said his son maintains good grades and was away from school due to sports-related travel. The senator said the current law is coercive and could also be counterproductive for some families.
"How does it help little Johnny whose mom or dad are already struggling to make ends meet to have them thrown in jail because he's not in school?" Jackson said.
Opponents say compulsory education is part of the safety net to protect children against neglect.
"It's a tool the schools have to say 'this is what we have to do; this is the law of the land,'" said Sen. Karen Mayne, D-West Valley City, who voted against the bill. "It's not a choice; children need to be educated."
Mayne said during her work as an educator she experienced firsthand how students can suffer if their parents don't make school a priority. She says giving the law some teeth can help schools get the attention of such parents.
"In my senate district, we have some challenges; we have a lot of Title I schools," Mayne said. "So sometimes there needs to be extra guidance and extra help."
According to the Utah-based Libertas Institute, from 2004 to 2015, a total of 20 Utah parents were jailed and 171 were fined for violating Utah's compulsory education law.