Ohio legislators are considering a bill that would offer children and their families cash bribes for showing up to school. 

House Bill 348, currently in committee, would create a pilot program to test if paying small cash stipends can help the state tackle its chronic absenteeism crisis. The bill would facilitate payments of $250 to each high school graduate and up to another $250 to those who graduate with a 3.0 grade point average or higher. 

The project extends to ninth graders and kindergarteners as well, offering the kindergarteners’ parents and the freshmen $25 for each two-week period during which they attend school at least 90% of the time. Those who kept up the 90% attendance rate for the quarter would be paid $150, and those who did so all year would be paid $500. Students at participating schools would be divided into two groups, with one eligible for the payments and the other serving as a control group, which would not be offered money for attendance.

Schools and districts would need a high absenteeism rate to qualify. Statewide, more than 26% of Ohio students were chronically absent last school year, defined as having missed at least 10% of school time. Pre-COVID, the percentage was roughly ten points lower. 

The COVID school closures, prolonged needlessly by teacher union bosses, accelerated chronic absenteeism nationwide. Teacher union bosses kept schools closed, pretending that schools were not essential. How very sad that so many parents believed them. 

Those who support this plan are tacitly admitting that schools are not providing enough value on their own to get students in the door. They believe a cash stipend might sweeten the deal enough to get kids back in classrooms. Even if the pilot program leads to higher attendance rates, the students who show up would still be receiving an education that they deemed not worth their time until cash was metaphorically on the table.

Even with money sweetening the deal, there is no guarantee of students showing up for school at a higher rate. Many may still decide it is simply not worth their time. The only thing more embarrassing than bribing students for attendance would be being turned down for that bribe. 

If policymakers want students and families to see the value in school, they ought to start by making school more valuable. Students and parents are largely rational actors, and a great many of them have evidently decided that school is simply not worth their time. If students were receiving an education that set them up for success in the workforce or in college, parents and high schoolers would make attendance a priority. 

The most efficient way to improve the quality of schooling is to open up school choice opportunities. School choice would allow parents to choose the educational option that best fits their child’s needs. School choice forces schools to compete for students, rather than allowing public schools a monopoly on students in a geographic area (save for those from families with the means to send them elsewhere). 

The real fix here is to ensure schools provide enough value in the lives of kids and families that they are eager to show up. And if a student’s government-assigned school is not delivering that kind of value, parents should have the option to send the child to a school that does.