Much has been said about the children who have struggled academically and socially as a result of being locked out of their schools during the pandemic. But not enough attention has been paid to the students who never came back.

It is estimated that nearly 15 million students were chronically absent during the 2021-22 school year, meaning they missed at least 10% of the school year. In poorer areas, the truancy rate that year was far higher, with 66% of low-income students attending a school with “extreme” levels of chronic absenteeism. 

Though public schools were able to boost attendance back up a bit in the 2022-23 school year, the situation still remains so dire in some districts that officials are considering shutting down schools altogether. What’s the point of having school, they wonder, when students are no longer showing up?

In Ohio, policymakers have proposed their version of a solution: cash payments to students as young as 4 years old who keep a 90% attendance rate. Under the pilot program, students between kindergarten and ninth grade who manage to meet this expectation could receive $150 at the end of each quarter and $700 at the end of the school year.

“This is the No. 1 issue we are facing in education,” said state Rep. Dani Isaacsohn, a Democrat. “We went from 15% pre-pandemic to over 31% in this most recent school year. That’s almost a third of our ninth graders that spend their first year of high school missing more than 10% of their school days.”

The Republican who is co-sponsoring the bill, state Rep. Bill Seitz, claimed other motivational efforts to get children back in the classroom have failed.

“So, we’ve tried pizza day and we have tried playground hours and we have tried all kind of foo-foo stuff. It doesn’t seem to work,” Seitz said. “So let us talk about the immediacy of a payment in cash. Cash is king. Cold, hard cash. In God we trust, all others pay cash.”

Of course, the real target of cash payments is the parents, who are ultimately responsible for making sure their children show up to school, as is required by law. And the idea that they should be bribed to fulfill this basic obligation understandably isn’t sitting right with everyone in the state. As state Rep. Josh Williams, one of the Republican opponents of the proposal, put it, “Why are we going to pay kids to follow the law? We have laws in place that say, ‘You cannot skip school. You cannot be truant. You can be criminally charged and penalized. Parents, your kids must be enrolled in school. If you don’t enroll your kids in school, you can be charged and you can be penalized.’”

But the question remains: How can we reasonably address a crisis that involves the well-being and success of hundreds of thousands of students? And even more important: Why did we allow things to get to this point in the first place?