by KIM HILSENBECK
Public education funding in Texas relies on a formula based on average daily attendance rather than enrollment, meaning districts receive money for each day a student is in school.
But districts also lose money for every day a student is absent.
According to new research from E3 Alliance, a regional collaborative dedicated to more data-driven efficiency in public education, more than half of Central Texas students miss six or more days per school year. E3’s data also shows that students who miss six or more days per year account for 85 percent of all absences.
Data from Children’s Optimal Health indicates low-income students are most at risk for these so-called chronic absences. The average number of days absent for non low-income students is nine. For those on a reduced lunch program, it’s 11. For those who receive a free lunch, the number jumps to 15 days per school year missed.
E3 has engaged Central Texas districts in a coordinated effort to reduce chronic absences. At a recent Food for Thought workshop, E3 invited area schools to join the Central Texas Attendance Challenge, which includes a national campaign called Get Schooled.
Kim Pool, Hays CISD assistant superintendent, attended the E3 workshop.
“Hays (CISD) is committed to being part of Get Schooled,” said Pool.
The campaign involves attendance challenges, ‘wake up calls’ from celebrities, trivia games and other incentives to encourage students to go to school.
E3 reports that attendance increased an average of three percent in the nearly 150 middle and high schools that have participated in a Get Schooled attendance challenge.
“If we improve student attendance,” said E3 Communications Director Rick L’Amie, “they’re in class, so they have better outcomes, and the state reimburses schools for every day a kid is there.”
The Challenge works by engaging schools and students in a friendly competition to earn points.
But Pool said the district also wants to better understand why students are absent in the first place. Hays CISD has started tracking reason codes for unexcused absences. And Pool said parental involvement is required if the district is to fix chronic absenteeism.
“If students are absent, we give parents a call,” said Pool.
She said there is sometimes not enough parental accountability; she’s had parents complain about getting notified of their child’s absenteeism.
Pool said missed-school time also affects other students who attend school regularly.
Overall, the Hays CISD attendance numbers are not as dire as other districts in Central Texas, according to Pool. The average daily attendance in the past three school years ranged from 95.5 percent in 2009-2010 to 96 percent this past school year.
But that still means about four percent of Hays CISD students are not in school on a regular basis.
E3’s research and analysis estimates that if Central Texas students would attend school just three more days each year — a two percent increase — districts would receive another $34 million in federal and state funding.
With the widely publicized controversy about the Texas Legislature’s defunding of public education in recent years, Pool said additional money would certainly help Hays CISD.
Carter Scherff, deputy superintendent, said his calculations are $30 per day for each student in attendance.
“Based on last year’s numbers, an increase of one percent in our attendance rate would yield approximately $750,000 in additional state revenue,” Scherff said.
A two percent increase, as E3 challenged districts to achieve, would yield $1.5 million in state funding.
Beyond just the financial piece of the puzzle, more students in schools would also improve the local economy, according to E3.
According to 2010 statistics from the Texas Education Agency, about 34,907 students dropped out of school that year.
As reported recently in The Texas Tribune, that will most likely translate to a lifetime of decreased economic opportunity. A 2009 Texas A&M study estimated that one year’s class of dropouts costs the state $9.6 billion over their lifetimes in lost wages, lower sales tax revenue and welfare taxes. And that’s with the short-term cost savings when they leave the public school system.
But critics say the dropout and graduation rates for public schools are prone to inaccuracy and are sometimes flawed.
That’s one reason why all 50 of the nation’s governors pledged in 2005 to begin reporting a common graduation rate called the Cumulative Promotion Index.
To date, 34 states, including Texas, have adopted the formula, which calculates the number of students who graduate on-time with a regular diploma, divided by the number of students who entered ninth grade for the first time four years earlier, adjusted for transfers.
The CPI put the state’s 2010 graduation rate at 72 percent instead of the Texas Education Agency’s 80 percent that year.
Still, there are several factors that cause those numbers to be potentially inaccurate, according to the Council of Chief State School Officers. For example, differences among state data systems, as well as accounting for students with special needs. And the formula does not include students who earn their General Educational Development certification.
Yet the E3 initiative, Pool says, would help students and parents better understand that attendance is a critical part of education, both in terms of preparing students for life after high school and connecting the idea that school success equals life success.
The additional funding that comes with getting students in the seats is also a key message, according to E3.