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Enrollment study will be a sprint

A new state study of how to count K-12 students formally got going Wednesday – only about six weeks before the effort is supposed to produce a report.

And discussion at the first meeting of the Average Daily Membership Advisory Committee highlighted fears that changing the way the state counts students will cost school districts money and create more work for them.

The author of the legislation that spurred the study sought to calm those fears. “Our belief was [changing the count method] leaves the same amount of money in the system,” said Sen. Mike Johnston, D-Denver, with “less amount of work.”

Witnesses and panel members also sparred a bit over whether the current system makes it too easy for schools to let problem students drop out of school after enrollment is counted every October.

The long lead-up to Wednesday’s meeting is an interesting case study in the pitfalls of legislating in a time of state budget cuts.

Colorado’s current enrollment counting system basically involves adding up the students who are in school on Oct. 1 and awarding state aid to districts based on those counts. (The actual system is rather more complicated. There is a “window” around Oct. 1 in which students can be counted, and there’s extensive checking and adjustment of counts submitted by districts.)

In the summer of 2009 a legislative committee proposed a study of counting students by a method called “average daily membership,” which tallies students based on average enrollment in districts over a school year. What educators call “ADM” is not to be confused with average daily attendance, a method that compiles enrollment figures from actual attendance stats.

The 2010 legislature took up the study panel’s suggestion, added the 17-member advisory committee and passed Senate Bill 10-008, which was signed into law more than months ago, on April 21.

So why didn’t the committee meet before Wednesday?

SB 10-008 forbid the use of tax dollars to fund the study, instead saying the project couldn’t start until the Department of Education raised sufficient “gifts, grants and donations” to fund the effort. Given the state budget crunch in recent years, using gifts and grants has become a favorite tactic for legislators who want to pass pet bills, especially relating to education.

CDE didn’t put together sufficient grants until near the end of October, according to Vody Herrmann, department school finance chief. A total of $45,000 was raised from the Donnell-Kay Foundation ($20,000), the Carson Foundation ($12,500) and the Daniels Fund ($12,500).

With the money in hand, the department put out a bid request and hired Denver-based education research and consulting firm Augenblick, Palaich and Associates to do the study. Justin Silverstein of APA, Mark Fermanich of the University of Colorado-Denver and Tracie Rainey of the Colorado School Finance Project are working on the study.

Those three outlined the project Wednesday to members of the committee, which is scheduled to meet only two more times before the report is finished.

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Some education reformers believe average daily membership is a more accurate way to count students and get money to the districts that need it most. Some advocates, like the Colorado Children’s Campaign, also believe that using ADM gives school districts an incentive to keep kids in school and will therefore lower dropout rates. The campaign has made reducing dropout rates a major initiative and on Wednesday issued a new report on the subject.

School districts worry that use of ADM could provide a rationale for lawmakers to reduce school funding, and they resent implications that schools let some students go after the Oct. 1 count.

Those conflicting views flared at Wednesday’s meeting.

Bruce Caughey, deputy executive director of the Colorado Association of School Executives, told the panel any switch in counting methods should be done carefully, and “the idea that our school districts don’t have the right incentives [to retain students] is offensive to me.”

Scott Groginsky, lobbying for the Children’s Campaign, replied that “we’re not” impugning the integrity of school districts but “We’re hearing this does happen … There are attempts to have kids leave school after the Oct. 1 count.”

Renee Howell, a Littleton school board member, raised financial concerns about a change in count methods, saying, “We’ve just gone through three years of massive cuts. … There’s a limit to how much people can do. … There’s reality and there’s what we’d like to build. Please be respectful of the reality.” (Fermanich said most districts gather ADM information now but acknowledged that creating and running a new audit and verification system could be difficult.)

Johnston tried to smooth things over, saying there’s no intent to decrease overall school funding by changing the count method. But he cautioned, “There is, of course, the possibility of redistribution. … We want these dollars to go where the kids are.”

Fermanich had stressed that point earlier, saying, “There may be shifts between districts. Some districts will be winners, and some will be losers.”

The advisory committee next meets on Dec. 15. The consultants said they plan to have the report finished by Jan. 14. The law authorizing the study contains a Dec. 15 deadline, but Johnston said he’d written to legislative leadership explaining why the document will be a month late.

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