School should be about content mastery. We go to school to learn. These kids are learning, and it's not a sentence where we’re serving time. —Rep. Francis Gibson, R-Mapleton
SALT LAKE CITY — High-achieving students would be free of the threat of criminal truancy under a bill approved Friday by the Utah House.
The House voted 47-27 in favor of HB399 after a debate that accused the bill of creating a protected class of students, violating equal protection and included a quote from George Orwell's "Animal Farm."
"All animals are equal, but some animals are more equal than others," Rep. Brian King, D-Salt Lake City, said in opposition to the bill.
HB399, sponsored by Rep. Francis Gibson, R-Mapleton, would exclude high school students from being cited for habitual truancy if they maintain a grade-point average of 3.5 or higher.
Current law allows for a student and their parents to face court action and a class B misdemeanor for frequent unexcused absences from school.
"School should be about content mastery," Gibson said. "We go to school to learn. These kids are learning, and it's not a sentence where we’re serving time."
School officials would still be able to impose consequences for poor citizenship, such as impeding a student from graduation or participating in extracurricular activities, he said. But those students whose grades suggest they're completing the tasks assigned to them would not face the threat of court action.
"It’s apparent they’ve been going to school," Gibson said. "They have great grades."
But some lawmakers worried about the message the bill sends to students.
Rep. Carol Spackman Moss, D-Salt Lake City, said the bill sets a bad precedent and would lead to more students shirking class during their senior years.
"I guarantee you the message that will go out if this passes is, 'You don’t really have to go to school,'" Moss said.
Rep. Jim Nielson, R-Bountiful, said smart students need to learn life's lessons as much as less-proficient children do. He questioned why someone should be given a pass from the law based on academics.
"Are we going to have a different set of rules if you’re smart?" Nielson asked.
Other lawmakers saw the bill as a move in the right direction by placing a focus on performance as opposed to the number of hours spent in the classroom.
Rep. Dana Layton, R-Orem, said more credence is given to seat time than actual learning, and it is ultimately parents who are in charge of whether their children attend school.
"I just don’t think it is criminal behavior to miss a class," Layton said.
The bill will now go before the Senate for consideration.