Worries and hopes about changing the way student enrollment is counted were laid bare Wednesday at a meeting of a panel studying the issue.
The debate among members of the Average Daily Membership Advisory Committee spotlighted the divide between school administrators and school reformers on the issue and also highlighted the political difficulty of making any change in student counting during a time of declining state financial support for schools.
Colorado’s current enrollment counting system basically involves adding up the students who are in school on Oct. 1 (and in a window of time around that date).
Last spring, legislators approved a study of counting students by a method called “average daily membership,” which tallies pupils based on average enrollment in districts over a school year.
Counting enrollment is a complex issue but the concerns line up like this:
• School districts worry that use of average daily membership could provide a rationale for lawmakers to reduce school funding, they resent claims that schools let some students go after the Oct. 1 count and they feel inclusion of graduation and dropout rates as part of the new state accreditation system for districts provide incentives to keep kids in school.
• Some education reformers believe average daily membership is a more accurate way to count students and get money to the districts and students that need it most, especially at-risk kids. Some also believe that using ADM gives school districts an incentive to keep kids in school – and that the current single-count system provides an incentive to push difficult students out after the count is tallied.
Both views were on display Wednesday.
John Barry, superintendent of the Aurora Public Schools, was the leading skeptic in the group.
“This is a large administrative overhead cost unless we get some kind of state-funded system so it wouldn’t be an unfunded mandate,” Barry said. Although he stressed he wasn’t speaking officially for the influential Denver Area Superintendents Council, “Right now they’re very concerned” about a possible change.
“The best way to approach this would be to reward districts with funding” to retain students, Barry said. “My question is … is the investment in the time, money and effort [for a new counting system] worth it when we could be focusing on something else?” Barry repeatedly used the question, “Is the pain worth the gain?”
Barry also asked, “Do we have any data that this [kind of counting system] has significantly affected student achievement?”
Mark Fermanich, one of the consultants doing the study, replied, “I don’t think there’s a lot out there.”
Alex Medler, vice president of the Boulder-based National Association of Charter School Authorizers and a former Colorado Children’s Campaign official, advocated the reform view.
“We have disincentives now for doing what’s right for kids,” he said. “We have to address removing the incentive” to counsel kids out of school after the Oct. 1 count.
Fountain-Fort Carson Superintendent Cheryl Serrano raised a fear that’s often voiced by school leaders – “Is this just a way for the state to cut?’
Vody Herrmann, school finance chief for the Department of Education, said, “That wasn’t the intent” when the law was passed, and Medler said, “No one here is looking to reduce the overall investment in education.”
Serrano said she also feared a switch actually would benefit districts with fewer poor, low-achieving students. “I think you’re going to see the rich get richer.”
Mary Wickersham, an education advisor to outgoing Gov. Bill Ritter, noted repeatedly that school funding is tight and declining. “If you have a fixed pot of money, you can’t have winners if you don’t have losers” when the counting method is changed.
A key issue in the debate is the potential cost of the verification and auditing required to make sure districts actually are serving the students they claim.
“It’s going to be verification that takes the work,” Fermanich said. He and fellow consultant Justin Silverstein briefed the panel on questions that asked school districts about the time required to manage the current count.
Medler wondered how tight verification needs to be. “No one wants money going to kids who aren’t there” but “at some point, we need to say it’s not worth it to solve every [data] problem.”
Herrmann defended verification in general, saying that the state has $4 to $8 million a year in “audit exceptions” – state aid that districts claim but which they may not be entitled to receive.
“They are doing everything they can to generate more money. It’s not every district, but we have some that are flagrant,” she said.
Sen. Mike Johnston, D-Denver and author of the bill that created the study, sat in on part of the meeting. “I completely agree that this [changing the count system] isn’t going to fix it all,” but he said that other states use different systems from which Colorado might learn.
Johnston told Education News Colorado recently that he would consider introducing ADM legislation during the 2011 legislative session, depending on what the study and the advisory panel come up with. The panel is to hold its last meeting the week of Jan. 2.
Because of delays in raising the private funding required for the project, the study, being done by the research firm Augenblick, Palaich and Associates, didn’t get started until last month. The advisory committee had its first meeting Dec. 1, and the report is due Jan. 7.