GOP Michigan education official: State should end required school attendance

Craig Mauger
The Detroit News

Lansing — Republican State Board of Education member Tom McMillin says Michigan should end its school attendance policies that broadly require parents to ensure their children are in class after the mass shooting at Oxford High School.

With some exceptions, the longstanding compulsory attendance law requires parents and guardians to send their students to school during the school year. Repealing the law would mark a dramatic and unlikely overhaul of Michigan public education, funding for which is currently based on attendance numbers.

On Monday, McMillin, a former conservative state House member from Oakland Township, contended that parents who are concerned about their children's mental health shouldn't have to "worry about what the state thinks or truancy officers or anything."

Tom McMillin

"As I said, if they need to take their child out for a week, a month, a year and do whatever they want with education while focusing on their child's mental health, then they should do it," McMillin said. "And I've seen that the pressures of school requirements can bear down on kids with mental health problems and their parents."

The State Board of Education member said the tragedy in Oxford drove him to decide "now is the time" to publicly advocate for the change. He posted his stance on Facebook last week, saying the "state needs to stop dictating terms of education of our kids."

Pamela Pugh, a Democrat and vice president of the State Board of Education, slammed McMillin's idea on Monday, describing it as part of an effort to dismantle public education. Michigan needs to ensure students have access to counseling and educators are supported, she said.

"It’s a shame that board member McMillin would exploit this horrific tragedy," Pugh said.

The State Board of Education, which is in charge of supervising public education, wouldn't be able to implement McMillin's idea on its own. That would require a change in state law. McMillin is one of eight elected members of the board, on which Democrats hold a 6-2 majority.

The current law requires a parent or guardian to send a child age 6 to 16 whom they're in charge of to school during the entire school year, according to a document from the state Department of Education. School districts' attendance officers enforce the law, and parents who violate it can face misdemeanors.

There are exceptions for students who attend nonpublic schools and students who are doing school at home.

A 1978 legal opinion from then-Attorney General Frank Kelley touted the compulsory attendance law, saying it "recognizes an educational value in regular attendance at school." In the opinion, Kelly decided that schools could factor attendance into a student's grades.

"Presence in a classroom aids in instilling concepts of self-discipline and exposes a student to group interactions with teachers and fellow students," Kelley wrote. "Such presence also enables a student to hear and participate in class instruction, discussion and other related learning experiences."

McMillin says repealing the compulsory attendance law "would open up all kinds of opportunities for families who have kids with mental health issues."

Some parents might have children in fine mental health but are concerned about the environment at their children's school because of threats and bullying, the former lawmaker said. They should be able to remove their students from class, McMillin said.

"They shouldn't have to get permission," he added.

McMillin's proposal came after four students were killed and seven were injured Tuesday in a mass shooting at Oxford High School. Ethan Crumbley, the 15-year-old sophomore charged in the killings, had drawn a sketch of a person shot twice and bleeding on a piece of paper the day of the shootings, according to authorities.

Oxford school officials showed Crumbley's parents the drawings and said they were required to get their son into counseling in the next 48 hours, and the officials asked the parents to remove him from the school that day. But the parents, Jennifer and James, left the school without him, and Ethan was returned to class.

Staff Writer Jennifer Chambers contributed.