Charter system for counting, funding students a model for districts

Last week Ohio Auditor of State Dave Yost reported that nine school districts manipulated student attendance data to improve their academic performance results. In response to these findings, Yost offered up thirteen recommendations for reforming Ohio’s system of reporting student enrollment. In an op-ed in Saturday’s Columbus Dispatch, he outlined his primary recommendation: Schools should count students and report enrollment more frequently than once per year.  Specifically, Yost said:

Ohio sends cash to local school systems based on the number of students in the school during Count Week in October each year. September doesn’t matter, and you don’t need to remember November — or January or February. Good attendance during one week locks in a year of state funding.

Money changes things. It drives behavior, frames decisions and affects thinking — sometimes in ways we don’t foresee or want. That’s one of the things I discovered during our statewide audit of attendance practices in schools.

Ohio should count kids every day, not once a year. A year-long financial incentive would drive attendance every day. The good news is that we know how to get the kids in school. Lining up the financial incentives with the goal of regular attendance would help keep the effort going.

Counting kids every day also would provide a penalty for “scrubbing” — the practice of artificially interrupting a child’s reported attendance, which removes his test scores from the school’s annual grade card. Under an every-day counting system, if the child isn’t in school, the money wouldn't flow.

Some district superintendents have complained that increased reporting of enrollment would be a time-consuming burden on their staff.  They vigorously fought to eliminate the second count week, in February, that the state had implemented several years ago.  Despite these objections, Ohio has a model in place for regular enrollment checks: charter schools.  Charter schools report enrollment monthly and each payment they receive from the state is adjusted based on the most recent enrollment count.  Schools large and small, rural and urban, independent and operated by major management companies have figured this system out and abide by it.  If they don’t, their funding is impacted.  As Auditor Yost said, money drives behavior.

What would be the financial impact of districts reporting enrollment more than once a year? We asked just that question in our recent study of statewide student mobility, conducted by Community Research Partners (CRP).  CRP compared the number of students enrolled during October count week with the number of students enrolled each month throughout the school year.  They found that 78 percent of school districts would receive less funding overall because of students leaving November through May. For example, using 2010-11 enrollment and funding data for six major urban districts, Table 1 shows the how many students were enrolled during count week versus total enrolled throughout the year and the impact this difference would have on the districts’ state funding.

 

District

Number of Students Enrolled During October Count Week versus Full Year

Change in State Funding if State Aid Followed Students Monthly

Akron

-258 students

-$1,722,718

Cincinnati

-312 students

-$1,178,326

Cleveland

-709 students

-$6,235,573

Columbus

-473 students

-$2,255,607

Dayton

-107 student

-$802,293

Toledo

-953 students

-$6,482,748

 

These dollars are separate from any guarantee funding districts receive under the school funding formula. And while most districts would lose funding if students were counted more frequently, 21 percent of districts would receive more. (One percent, or four districts, would not see a net change in funding if enrollment reporting was changed.)

Auditor Yost is right: Kids should count all year long, and money should go to the school a child is actually attending.  Ohio has a tested model for doing just that in its 300+ charter schools.  The state should develop a similar system for districts. 

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