*Editor's note: This story has been updated to reflect the most current status of the bills.
With one Texas county facing a federal investigation into how it punishes chronic school-skippers — and Texas one of only two states that prosecute truants in adult courts — lawmakers are weighing two House measures that would decriminalize truancy.
House Bill 1490, by state Rep. Dan Huberty, R-Humble, and state Rep. James White's House Bill 2398 would force school districts to take on more responsibility when dealing with truant students and refer them to the courts only as a last resort.
Huberty's measure was referred by the House to a conference committee on Friday, after being voted out of the Texas Senate on Wednesday. The measure from White, R-Hillister, has been referred to conference committee after the House failed to concur with changes made by the Senate.
Both bills contain significant portions of Senate Bill 106 by state Sen. John Whitmire. The Houston Democrat's bill failed to make it out of the House Committee on Juvenile Justice and Family Issues, and his efforts to blend the reforms into other bills has caused some rancor.
"Is this the first time I'm seeing this?" asked state Sen. Van Taylor, R-Plano on Wednesday, referring to how Huberty's six-page bill ballooned to over 60 with the changes. Whitmire fired back that he had not "sprung anything" on senators.
Some school superintendents oppose any change to the truancy system.
"We have a high school completion rate north of 96 percent. We also have a daily attendance rate of 96 percent," wrote John P. Kelly, superintendent of Pearland Independent School District, on his blog. "Do we really need our legislators to change what’s working for us?"
But criminal justice advocates like the Texas Criminal Justice Coalition and Texas Appleseed have pushed for truancy reform.
"I'm very confident. I think at this point all of the kinks have been worked out and there's broad support for 1490 and 2398," said Deborah Fowler, Texas Appleseed's executive director. "It's just a race against the clock at this point."
Texas and Wyoming are the only states that prosecute children in adult courts for truancy.
Here, schools have the option of referring students who miss at least 10 days during a six-month period to municipal judges or justices of the peace. Truant students can be sentenced to community service or even harsher penalties — including jail time or wearing a GPS-tracking ankle bracelet — if a student fails to follow the court's order and return to school.
Students 17 and older who failed to follow court orders have been sent to jail. The state does not track how many students have been sent to jail.
Dallas County, one of two Texas counties operating separate truancy courts, is now the focus of a U.S. Department of Justice investigation into whether children's rights are being violated. The school district in the only other county with a separate truancy legal system, Fort Bend, told parents in April it was suspending referrals to the court system and is re-examining its truancy process.