You may have seen the billboards:

2 absences per month = likely to fail a grade

The full impact of the message may be lost when viewed at 60 mph, but the billboard is a headline for a critically important story. According to the billboard’s sponsor, “Even one year of chronic absence can cause a child to fall behind academically and decrease a child’s chances of graduating from high school, which can have long-term consequences on their financial independence, physical well-being and mental health.”

The billboards are sponsored by Absences Add Up, part of the “My Brother’s Keeper” initiative which includes the U.S. Departments of Education (ED), Health and Human Services (HHS), Housing and Urban Development (HUD) and Justice (DOJ). The interagency effort seeks to “support coordinated community action to address the underlying causes of local chronic absenteeism affecting millions of children in our nation’s public schools each year.”

Children miss school for a variety of reasons, from fear of being bullied to caregiver neglect. But two factors stand out: Poverty is a key indicator of students who chronically are absent from school and poor health is a major cause of why kids miss school.

The online publication MinnPost called chronic absenteeism, “the most important education problem in Minnesota that no one is talking about.” MinnPost reported that in 2016, at least one in six students in Minnesota school districts and charter schools missed 10 percent or more days of the school year (which includes both excused and unexcused absences),” according to Minnesota Department of Education data.

As MinnPost reported, “In Minnesota as in the U.S., chronic absence tends to follow poverty.”  That’s a concern in a state in which 165,000 children under age 18 lived in households with incomes below the official poverty threshold in 2015, according to the Minnesota state demographic center.

Another red flag is the increase in uninsured Minnesotans, which increased by 116,000 in 2017 compared to two years earlier. The lack of health insurance leaves children more vulnerable to illness and less able to control chronic health conditions that can significantly increase school absences.

Solutions aren’t easy and they aren’t always obvious. One key is investing in public health and wellness, a sometimes-controversial use of tax dollars. The pay-off, though, is well documented. In 2007, for example, the Minnesota Department of Health conducted a demonstration program to help parents and other caregivers better manage asthma in their children. The program focused on families with children with persistent asthma attacks. Caseworkers visited the homes to educate parents on best practices to reduce the environmental triggers of attacks and, in some cases, to provide high-efficiency filters for furnaces and vacuums, new covers for pillows and mattresses and other tools to reduce allergens and irritants.

The results were stunning. The number of school days missed declined from an average of seven days per years to less than one day over a 12-month period. Think about this in terms of a 13-year K-12 career: Just this one intervention – reducing absences triggered by asthma attacks – could improve attendance by more than one-half of an entire school year, dramatically improving the likelihood of high school graduation.

Every child deserves to have an opportunity for success. And, it is in the self-interest of every Minnesotan to make sure that all children are well-educated and prepared to do well in life. Think of it this way: the state of Minnesota’s current budget for K-12 education is $18.8 billion, or more than 40 percent of the entire biennial budget for the state. And this total doesn’t include all the other K-12 funding raised at the local level.

To not do everything that can be done to help assure that children attend school on a regular basis – including investing in public health – shortchanges the return on all the tax dollars being spent on education.