The COVID-19 pandemic continues to disrupt the nation’s K-12 education system, and Mississippi hasn’t been spared. Information from the Mississippi Department of Education indicates that public school enrollment has dropped by 5 percent since last year. The loss of over 23,000 students is attributable to a combination of a decline in kindergarten enrollment and an uptick in homeschooling and private schooling. More importantly, the pandemic has presented difficult issues for the state’s attendance-based school funding system. While the state has allowed districts some flexibility, statutory requirements around instructional hours, attendance, and learning days have remained largely in place. Consequently, teachers and district leaders have been spread thin trying to maintain safety while also continuing to meet average daily attendance (ADA) funding requirements.
The way that Mississippi counts kids as part of its school funding formula is very important because these student counts help determine how much funding each district and school gets. The higher the count, the more funding goes to local districts. Mississippi is among only a handful of states that still determines school funding by student attendance – average daily attendance (ADA) – rather than enrollment. Even before the pandemic, determining school funding based on ADA was flawed because it is based on false premises and doesn’t fund school districts fairly. For the sake of Mississippi students, there’s no better time than now to scrap ADA funding and instead allocate resources based on student enrollment.
Forty-three states determine school funding by enrollment – either through a single enrollment count at the beginning of the year, multiple count days during the year, or average daily enrollment. Proponents of ADA argue that this way of counting kids incentivizes schools to encourage student attendance and funds districts fairly since they are only receiving support for students who are in classrooms on a given day. Both assumptions fail under scrutiny.
There’s little evidence that using ADA rather than enrollment for school funding boosts attendance. Chronic absenteeism and truancy are generally related to poverty and other community-driven factors outside of a school district’s control. Moreover, schools make staffing and programmatic decisions based on the students they expect to serve – i.e., those who are enrolled. Districts have little ability to adjust costs based on students who don’t attend school on a given day. Class goes on and teachers get paid, regardless of whether one student or ten skip school for the day.
Beyond being built on a faulty foundation, using ADA creates arbitrary per-pupil funding disparities between school districts. Consider what happens when we compare two of the state’s larger districts: Clinton and Meridian. The two school systems are very similar in size, with Clinton enrolling 5,310 students and Meridian enrolling 5,232 in the 2018-2019 school year. However, in that same year, Clinton had an average daily attendance rate of 94.07 percent while Meridian had an ADA rate of 88.44 percent. In FY20, Mississippi’s main funding formula funded each ADA student at $5,626. But due to differences in attendance rates, Clinton received an estimated $5,292.59 per enrolled pupil while Meridian only received $4,975.83 per enrolled pupil: a gap of $316.76 per student (note these figures are estimates based on the entire school year). The estimated funding disparity comes out to $1.66 million for the year when multiplied over Meridian’s entire student body. This means that if Meridian had produced the same attendance rate as Clinton, they would have received $1.66 million more in funding. Even worse, Meridian has a child poverty rate that is more than double that of Clinton’s: 39.6 percent as compared to Clinton’s 13.6 percent, according to the U.S. Census Bureau.
Like Meridian, many Mississippi districts are being shortchanged because of below-average attendance rates. In fact, had the 64 Mississippi districts with below average attendance been funded instead at the statewide ADA rate, they would have received an estimated $18.88 million in additional state funding.
Mississippi should join the vast majority of states that are funding districts based on enrollment. To their credit, state leaders have already tried to rectify this problem. HB 481 was introduced in last year’s legislative session to eliminate the use of ADA and to move instead to average daily membership, which would count students based on enrollment rather than attendance over the course of the year. While the bill did not pass, this effort shows that a bipartisan solution can be found to this problem.
Christian Barnard is an education policy analyst at Reason Foundation.