Count Day Could Become an Outdated Gimmick

On Oct. 3, every student who shows up for class at Detroit Public Schools will get a free pair of Nikes

The free shoes gimmick isn't really about educating Detroit students. Oct. 3 is the state's "count day," and the number of students who show up that day will determine 90 percent of all districts' state funding.

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Last fall, 60,255 full-time Detroit students showed up on count day according to state full-time equivalent data. In the spring, when the number of students determines only 10 percent of state funding for districts, 1,240 fewer students showed up. 

When those students fail to show up can make all the difference for a district's finances. If 1,000 fewer DPS students show up on fall count day, the district could lose out on roughly $8 million. But, if 1,000 fewer DPS students show up on spring count day, the district might lose less than $1 million.

Last year, the difference between fall and spring attendance counts at the Hazel Park School District was even more dramatic than in Detroit. More than 440 fewer students went missing between fall and spring, amounting to more than 10 percent of Hazel Park's enrollment. The Buena Vista School District reported an even higher attrition rate of more than 11 percent, and Eau Claire Public Schools reported an attrition rate of more than 12 percent.

Some charter public schools reported large drops as well. The Benton Harbor Charter School saw student counts drop by more than 10 percent between fall and spring, while the Saginaw Learn to Earn Academy reported a drop of more than 12 percent.

These student drops are not typical. Many are more than five times the statewide average of 1.2 percent.

A large attrition rate does not necessarily indicate wrongdoing. Students may be choosing to leave districts for other educational alternatives, or the district may be plagued with a high dropout rate.

Regardless of the reason for these changes in enrollment, districts should not receive state funding for students who have left. Moreover, districts picking up students after fall count day should be able to pick up the state funding associated with those students.

Indeed, as DPS, Hazel Park, Buena Vista and Eau Claire schools lost students between fall and spring, other districts reported gains. The Westwood Community School District reported 60 more students in the spring than it had in the fall, and the Michigan Connections Academy's spring count was more than 10 percent larger than its fall count.

Hopefully, a new provision in the state school aid bill for the 2012-13 school year will address this accounting problem and put an end to gimmicks designed to get students to show up on just one day of the school year.

Now, districts and charter public school can claim credit for students on a daily basis. This means that if a student transfers schools on Oct. 4, the school district the student left won't get 90 percent of the state per-pupil funding associated with that student. Instead, the district receiving that student can pick up the majority of state funding.

Participation in this new accounting of student enrollment isn't mandatory — but if a district correctly claims a student who transferred in from another district, the old district will no longer receive state funds for that student. This provides a large financial incentive for districts receiving students to claim them.

Are DPS officials not aware of this change? Are they betting that nearby districts who receive many former DPS students won't report those students to the state for funding? Such a strategy is a short-sighted one. It is only a matter of time before a system is put in place to account for student transitions between school districts. 

And if that system takes too long to implement, or if districts find a way around it, an effort to re-write the way the state distributes school aid will also likely to reduce the importance of count day. Gov. Rick Snyder has said that he'd like to see state funding follow each student, instead of the current focus on district-level funding.

At some point, Michigan's school districts will have to realize that count day gimmicks are just a funding game, and do little to help students learn. Districts should not be focusing on how to best boost attendance rates on an October Wednesday. They should be focusing on helping educate and retain students every day of the year.

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