Not Counting on the Count: Why Student Count is Trickier Than You Think
Updated on March 15, 2021
School funding across the United States is determined by a series of complex, interrelated policy decisions. There has been a lot of discussion in Delaware lately about how to best allocate state dollars to schools, but little written about a seemingly small but important piece of the puzzle: how we count students. The policy for how we count students is even more important this year now that students are not occupying classroom seats like they normally would be. As we head into a new legislative session this January with important school equity issues on the table, it will be important to consider Delaware’s counting method alongside them.
In Delaware and most places, the student “count” plays an important factor in how much money gets doled out. But the method a state chooses for counting its students is a related but separate policy decision from the method a state chooses to allocate its resources. Allocation, for the most part, depends on the students being served. The student count determines the amount of funding that is allocated to schools the following school year. In Delaware’s case, school funding is translated into “units” meaning “staff units” or personnel the school is allowed to hire.
Delawareans have said they want to see a more equitable, predictable, and stable funding system—but basing our student count on attendance and limiting it to once a year holds back progress.
Delaware counts its students based on attendance once per year, usually around September 30. But think about the inherent trappings of a snapshot of attendance taken once early in the fall. What about students who move or transfer after September 30? Or students who were absent during that September count? A more equitable, predictable, and stable count would be one that includes all students enrolled and increases the frequency of the count over the span of a school year.
Why does the count matter?
Once the student count is complete and verified by the state Department of Education, the state takes the number of students in each building and converts them into “units.” A unit is the state resources needed to support a classroom such as teachers, school personnel, energy costs, building costs, etc. Since the student count determines how we calculate units and allocate funds to schools each year, it is a critical component of the funding system. In other states, that student count gets put in to weighted student funding/foundation formula.
Why does how we count matter?
There are two major issues at play when counting students: how often we count and whether we count attendance or membership (enrollment). How often we count, or the frequency of the count, can vary between once a year, multiple times a year, or every day of the school year. The more times you count, the more equitable and accurate the count is.
Attendance is who is actually present at or during school, whereas membership means how many students are enrolled on the school’s roster. An attendance-based method increases the chances of an undercount of total students because it only includes who is present. When a district undercounts, they receive fewer units, or resources, to serve their students. Counting enrollment instead of attendance lessens the potential of an undercount because it includes all students a school serves, whether they are present the day of the count or not. Having an accurate number of all students is crucial to ensure schools receive the amount of funding needed to support all students enrolled, not just those who attend.
An enrollment-based count is more equitable for the same reason: it allows districts to count and include all students a public school serves. Black, Hispanic, English learners, low-income, and special education students are more likely than their peers to be chronically absent from school—which means they are more likely to be missed by Delaware’s current attendance-based student count. Again, an undercount of total students could mean less funding—a district receives funding for those included in the attendance-based count, not total students enrolled. Basing the count on enrollment would ensure all students are captured and that schools receive funding that supports all students enrolled.
The COVID-19 pandemic made counting student attendance in Delaware a challenge this past fall and arguably demonstrates why we need to change how we count students. Because of the pandemic, many Delaware schools delayed their start dates and had to pivot to provide virtual, hybrid, or in-person education to students. Because of the mixed-delivery system of education, school attendance has been difficult to define and capture this year. The News Journal reported that even with a delayed student count of November 13, concerns over the possibility of an undercount persisted. The November 13 student count has since come out and shows that public school enrollment dropped statewide.
What changes been proposed in Delaware?
Legislators and advocates have recognized the need to update how Delaware counts students. For instance, the 150th General Assembly considered legislation to change the student, count but it ultimately did not pass. The bill proposed Delaware’s current single day unit count system shift to a “Multiple Single Day Count” method. This change would allow school districts to participate in an optional mid-year unit count to include students who enrolled after the initial unit count was conducted in September to allow schools to qualify for additional funding. UPDATE: A new version of this bill (HB 54) has been introduced this legislative session. Similar to the previous proposal, this bill clarifies how to conduct the optional mid-year unit count and how it can be used.
What do other states do?
All states require some form of a student count in order to fund public education. Student count methodology varies from state to state, with most states using Average Daily Membership. Neighboring states such as Maryland and New Jersey also use a Single Date Count, but then use weighted student funding to allocate resources.
What are the other methods?
Single Day Count (Delaware Method): A one-time count is the least equitable method for counting students. It does not address student transfers or new enrollment after the count is completed. If a student transfers to a different school after the count, they are not included in their new school’s actual student count. In Delaware, the single count method is also based on attendance. This means that even if a student is enrolled in a school, they will not count toward a district’s September 30 count unless they are in attendance during the count window.
Multiple Single Day Count: Adding an additional count during the school year begins to address equity and predictability, but falls short. This method addresses capturing students who have transferred schools or moved into the state, but can still lead to challenges such as inaccuracy due to the limited number of counting dates. If based on attendance, the count only captures students who are present, and not all the students a public school serves. Additionally, if based on attendance, this count can put pressure on schools to ensure students are in attendance during the count windows.
Average Daily Attendance: Research suggests that counts conducted throughout the school year are the most accurate way to capture student counts; however, basing the count on attendance, like Average Daily Attendance does, could lead to an undercount of all students that districts must serve. The frequency of the count allows for greater predictability for districts, but continues to be inequitable as it does not include all students enrolled. Potential challenges of this method include the capacity of systems to capture this information and the additional administrative burden it can create due to the frequency of counting.
Average Daily Membership: Out of the methods, Average Daily Membership is the most equitable and provides increased predictability for districts. A count based on enrollment over the span of a year allows districts to more accurately predict what their count will be and allows the count to be more stable from school year to school year. Similar to Average Daily Attendance, this method has greater accuracy because the count is conducted over the school year and not just on one day. Average Daily Membership however differs because it is based on enrollment, not attendance, making it fairer and more equitable by capturing all students a district serves.
A Better Way to Count Kinds and Fund Schools During the COVID Pandemic by the Mississippi Center for Public Policy and Reason Foundation
Understanding State School Funding, Education Commission of the States, 2012
- Student Enrollment Count Mechanisms for School Funding, Colorado Children’s Campaign, 2010
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