Kamala Harris Wants to Federalize Truancy Prosecution

Doubles down on controversial truancy policy from time as Calif. AG

Sen. Kamala Harris (D., Calif.) said that she would bring school truancy under the auspices of the Department of Education if elected president.

Harris has faced backlash for her "tough on truancy" policy while San Francisco district attorney and California attorney general, which led to the arrest of parents whose children missed too many school days. Her recent comments on a liberal podcast suggest that in spite of her stated ambivalence about past enforcement, she would forge ahead in making California's truancy law America's truancy law.

Harris's comments came during an interview with Angela Rye, a lawyer and liberal political commentator. Rye asked Harris if she would "extend the [anti-truancy] program on a federal level, or try to figure out ways to address truancy on a federal level?"

"Yeah," Harris responded, "but as president it would be really doing it through the Department of Education. I did it through the mechanisms I had, because I wasn't running the city, I wasn't running the county. I wasn't running the state."

Rye pressed her, asking, "do you think the Department of Education is more suited to handle truancy issues?"

"Yeah, I do," Harris said.

According to the Center for American Progress, there is no national definition of truancy. States determine their own definitions of, and responses to, truancy—a reflection of America's historical preference for governing education at the state and local level.

Harris made being "tough on truancy" a major focus of her time in state and local law enforcement. As San Francisco DA, she issued citations to parents whose children missed more than 50 days of school. While running for attorney general, she pushed the California state legislature to adopt a statute that threatened parents or guardians of repeatedly truant children with a $2,500 fine or up to a year in jail. The law passed just after her election.

"We are putting parents on notice," Harris said at her 2011 inauguration. "If you fail in your responsibility to your kids, we are going to work to make sure you face the full force and consequences of the law."

In the Rye interview, Harris said that she saw keeping kids in school as a way to keep them out of the criminal justice system in the future.

"I was talking about this issue when nobody at that level was talking about it," Harris said. "Because I know where those children end up. And I know I don't want to be in the position of prosecuting a case and having that child end up in the criminal justice system when the system failed that child from the beginning, and that was about holding the system accountable."

Harris's Democratic primary opponents have attacked her parent prosecution approach, with many characterizing it as out of step with today's Democratic party. Progressives see the use of police power against parents or students as reinforcing the "school to prison pipeline" and the criminalization of poverty.

"For some criminal justice reformers, it's almost irrelevant whether the program reduced truancy," Vox‘s German Lopez wrote. "They argue that it never should have been considered at all."

Since declaring her candidacy, Harris has sought to downplay her involvement in and the effects of the truancy program, claiming that any arrests were "unintended consequences" of the law. FactCheck.org said this claim is misleading, and that Harris knew the bill could lead to prosecution of parents.

While Harris has attempted to distance herself from her record in other contexts, the Angela Rye interview indicates that the California senator not only still believes in truancy enforcement, but would like to see the controversial program spread nationwide.