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New Illinois truancy law clashes with federal law
By Jeff Kolkey
Rockford Register Star
ROCKFORD - Another new law is coming that could further drive down truancy rates in Rockford schools. It threatens something that many teenagers hold dear: their driver's licenses.
Epidemic chronic truancy rates in the Rockford School District dropped from 9.6 percent to 6.7 percent last year as a new Rockford city ordinance made ditching school illegal.
Starting July 1, the new state law requires Illinois school districts to report chronic and habitual truants to Secretary of State Jesse White.
Students on the list will not be allowed to obtain a learner's permit or driver's license until they are 18, unless the School District certifies that the applicant has resumed regular school attendance.
Rockford School District attorney Stephen Katz raises one concern with the new law - another law, called the Federal Education Rights and Privacy Act, prohibits sharing student records without parental permission to all but a select group of agencies.
"Nowhere on there is the secretary of state of Illinois," Katz said.
Katz said this is not the first time the state General Assembly has approved a law in conflict with federal law.
Typically, the School District relies on the U.S. Department of Education to sort the issue out and give the district written guidance. Rockford schools requested such guidance in a letter sent to the top education agency of the country back in November.
There was no response then or to repeated letters and phone calls since, Katz said.
"We were all young once and know what the driver's permit meant to us," Katz said. "It's great leverage and wonderful way to address the problem. But then you have a federal law sitting on the books and you wonder."
If they can use the law, Rockford educators welcome it as an additional tool in a growing list of weapons to combat truancy, Assistant Superintendent Linda Hernandez said.
"Kids don't want to lose their wheels," Hernandez said. "To me, it could compare to a parent grounding a kid from the car. They will do whatever they have to to get it back."
Chronic truancy is defined as students missing 18 or more school days without a valid excuse. Rockford's new truancy ordinance combined with a collaboration from the city, School District, county, United Way and YWCA worked last year to put a serious dent in Rockford's embarrassingly high chronic truancy rate.
Chronic truancy was cut by 28.8 percent, from 2,626 students in 2006 to 1,868 students in 2007.
The new driver's license wrinkle will give truancy efforts even more muscle, said Adam Smith, the mayor's director of education and life-long learning.
Smith said he doesn't foresee the privacy issue preventing the new law from working.
A marketing campaign this summer including mailers and posters is being planned to make sure the community is informed about the truancy intervention efforts and the possible consequences of truancy.
"We think it will really add another level of teeth to the process," Smith said.
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