High school students who missed more than six weeks of schools this year could still receive their diplomas under a new emergency measure approved by the D.C. Council.
The new measure will allow the advancement of students at risk of not moving to the next grade because of absences. Current D.C. Public Schools (DCPS) policy states that students with 30 or more absences in a class will fail, but the measure would delay enforcement of the policy until the next school year.
The measure, which passed in a 12-1 vote, would only apply to students who meet all other academic standards.
At-large Council members David Grosso (I) and Robert C. White Jr. (D), who co-introduced the legislation, said students should not have to pay for the city’s mistakes as school officials only decided to enforce the system’s long-abandoned policies on attendance midyear in the wake of a citywide graduation scandal.
“DCPS changed the rules in the middle of the school year without regard to how it would affect students,” White said. “For DCPS to not enforce a uniform attendance policy and have the consequences of their mistake fall entirely on children who had no say in the matter is patently unfair.”
DCPS began strictly enforcing its longstanding attendance policy after a city-commissioned report released in January revealed that nearly one-third of the District’s graduating seniors in 2017 secured diplomas despite breaching the district’s attendance guidelines or improperly utilizing makeup courses.
“The optics in which you have the council stepping in and saying, ‘Well, kids can miss 30 days and it’s OK,'” Council Chairman Phil Mendelson (D) said before voting on the legislation. “And it’s kind of, as I said, no good decision either way.”
The council passed the bill on an emergency basis so that it can be implemented an accelerated timeline and without congressional review.
Mayor Muriel Bowser’s signature is needed for the bill to go into effect, but her administration has said it does not support the measure.
Councilman Brandon Todd (D-Ward 4) was the only member to vote against the legislation.
“This emergency legislation undermines [the school system’s] efforts and sends a troubling message about the importance of school attendance, suggesting that students need a waiver to excuse absences,” Ahnna Smith, the interim deputy mayor for education, said in a statement. “We will continue to stress the importance of attendance because every day counts.”
The exact number of students affected by the measure is uncertain. Data released by the school last month indicated that 46 percent of the school system’s 3,623 seniors were on track to graduate this year and that 64 of those students may not graduate due to chronic absence. This year’s projected graduation rate is a steep drop from last year’s 73 percent.
However, White said the school system has updated its figures and that 26 students may receive a break from the new legislation.
If Bowser, who has not vetoed a bill during her three years in office, signs the legislation, the affected students would not be able to participate in commencement ceremonies that occur before the legislation went into effect, but would receive their diplomas later.