Let's just get this out of the way right now: Truancy is a problem that schools must continue to address. Absenteeism among students of all ages contributes to high dropout rates, crime, gang activity and communitywide economic doldrums.

That said, if education leaders want to portray truancy accurately -- that is, give us a true picture of how many kids are purposefully blowing off school -- they ought to reconsider the way they define the word.

Students are considered truant if they arrive late by 30 minutes or more without a valid excuse three times in a single academic year. Anyone who has raised a teen -- even a valedictorian -- knows some mornings are tougher than others.

Students are considered "habitual" truants if, during the course of the academic year, they miss five days of school without an excuse. They might have been ill or taking a "vacation day" with family, but if they fail to provide valid evidence that they weren't simply cutting, it's another notch in the truancy ledger.

California school districts lost about $1.4 billion in the 2010-11 school year due to student absences and Kern County was among the hardest hit, according to a report released this week by California Attorney General Kamala Harris. Absenteeism cost Kern County public schools $53.9 million, or $319 per pupil, the 10th highest per-pupil loss among the state's 58 counties. Poverty and poor air quality were probably contributing factors.

But maybe, as the California Teachers Association argues, attendance would improve if school curricula did a better job of engaging and encouraging students. That means reinstating music and arts programs, encouraging constructive but fun extracurriculars and continuing to focus on mutual respect and its antithesis, persistent bullying.

In any case, taxpayers should be given a clearer picture of the actual absenteeism problem. Broad definitions do us no good; if "truancy" comes in multiple varieties, schools should specify what exactly they're reporting. Otherwise truancy statistics just come off sounding like scare tactics.