A Better Way to Count Kids and Fund Schools During the COVID Pandemic

By Christian Barnard
February 2, 2021

The COVID-19 pandemic has demonstrated the need to update Mississippi’s K-12 education funding model, in particular the way that the school finance formula counts students.

Mississippi differs from most states in the fact that they currently use an average daily attendance (ADA) model to count kids. This way of counting students is not all bad, but the COVID-19 pandemic has brought to light the already existing deficiencies of the ADA model and some Mississippi school districts are at risk of losing a significant amount of funding because their ADA has declined during the COVID-19 outbreak.

Surprising variation exists in how states measure public school enrollment. These measurements are important because they ultimately affect how education dollars are allocated to students and schools. Every way of counting kids  comes with important tradeoffs: some are more accurate than others; some impose a greater administrative burden; others result in more budget stability. This commentary will survey the current student counting methods used across states and make policy recommendations that Mississippi policymakers could employ to address funding shortfalls resulting from a decline in ADA counts.

Key Considerations: Accuracy, Predictability and Budget Stability

There are some key considerations states make when they take different approaches to counting students. Keep in mind that there are drawbacks to each of these considerations.

The first priority for legislators weighing different student count methodologies should be accuracy. Accuracy is the key to fair funding insofar as the entire point of counting student enrollment is to correlate enrollment with funding. To be funded, a student must be counted.

To the extent that any other factors obscure the principle that funding should be determined by the true number of students a district currently has enrolled, inequities will emerge. Concerns over accuracy and funding equity are the reason some states opt to use average daily membership (ADM). This way of counting differs from ADA in that ADM averages student enrollment numbers—rather than attendance numbers—over much of the school year. Enrollment is considered more accurate in this case because it counts the number of students a district expects to serve, not the number that show up on a given day. North Carolina, Tennessee, and West Virginia, along with many other states, use ADM.

Second, there is generally some acknowledgement that school districts must be able to reliably craft their yearly budgets. If state funding varies too much over the course of a year due to attendance fluctuations , districts won’t be able to make confident hiring or programmatic decisions. If, as it’s generally assumed, student bodies are largest at the beginning of a semester, districts must structure their staffing and budgets without good knowledge of which students and how many of them will end up withdrawing. These budget concerns are the reason some states use single-day enrollment counts at the beginning of the year (Colorado, Maryland, Massachusetts) or at only several points over the course of the year (Georgia, South Carolina, Louisiana).

A third key consideration for state lawmakers when deciding on a student counting system is that districts struggle to adjust their cost structures when student bodies are changing substantially over a short span of years. When student bodies are shrinking or growing rapidly, districts must make long-term decisions about consolidating or expanding school facilities. With staffing, they often can only downsize through attrition when populations are shrinking. Likewise, schools face additional hiring costs when student populations are growing. Because these long-term investments take time and often lag behind the speed at which student populations are changing, some states (Maine, Nevada, North Carolina) allow districts to incorporate older or projected student counts so that they have a financial cushion to accommodate substantial increases or decreases in student populations.

Lastly, many state policymakers believe funding decisions should emphasize school attendance metrics. Under this model, the reigning assumption is that time spent in a physical classroom directly translates into student achievement. A primary rationale for the small number of states (Mississippi, California, Illinois) that count students through attendance, rather than enrollment, is that they want to encourage districts to get students in their classrooms.

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