Pupil Count Day

For public schools and their employees, "pupil count day" is one of the most important days on the school calendar. Judging by the actions of some large school districts throughout the state, count day trumps the first day of school, MEAP testing days and graduation day. Many schools go all out trying to corral as many students as possible to show up on this day-of-days.

On the heels of its $500,000 advertising and PR campaign, which among other things included guest appearances by Bill Cosby, Detroit Public Schools is pulling out all the stops to fill its classrooms on count day. Schools will host parades, pizza parties and cookouts, and all district students get a free breakfast and lunch if they show up for a day. Skywriters will post notes in the wild blue yonder, reminding parents to send their kids to school!

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Grand Rapids and Lansing are trying similar strategies. School personnel will patrol the local arcades, parks and other teenage hangouts to round up kids who look like they should be in school. Individual schools also entice students with a myriad of activities. Following a highly successful luau lunch last year, a Grand Rapids school will feature a "country hoe-down" where students will don western style clothing and participate in rodeo games.

Why all the hoopla? Michigan bases each school district's funding level on pupil counts, and 75 percent of the pupil count is determined by how many seats are filled on the fourth Wednesday after Labor Day. Obviously the school districts have an exceedingly strong incentive to maximize that number.

Most of the time press reports of school funding declines are the result of declining pupil counts in a district (whether the particular reporter acknowledges this or not). Such stories generate some griping by the public, but the alternative to allocating more of a finite number of dollars to schools with more students, and less to schools with fewer students, is  - what, exactly? Subsidizing the latter by punishing the former?

Declining pupil counts are usually related at least indirectly to poor school performance. It's no wonder that the districts using the most outlandish gimmicks to fill their classrooms on pupil count day are also the ones with the fastest declining enrollments. Districts that want more students should give less effort to PR and more to improving student performance.