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Commentary: Unfunded kids dumped on districts?

Ben DeGrow is a public policy analyst with the Independence Institute, focusing on education labor issues.

Last October, Education News Colorado released its controversial series on full-time online schools. One of the leading claims in the story was that students transferring from online programs after the October 1 count date create an unfunded burden for many school districts:

In the tiny Florence School District outside Pueblo, [Laura] Johnson was one of 39 students who left Florence High School last year to sign up for online classes with GOAL Academy, one of the largest online schools in Colorado.

By January, she was back at Florence, disillusioned by the online experience and trying to make up for her lost time in class. She was joined by a dozen of her former online classmates.

Those 39 students who left Florence High School for GOAL represented one of every 10 students in the school. When they left, so did nearly a quarter million dollars in state funding – the equivalent of four to five teachers’ salaries. When a dozen of the students returned to Florence High mid-year, the funding to educate them did not come with them. GOAL got to keep it.

Unfortunately, the report lacked some key information that provides a significantly different perspective. A November 2011 legislative staff report tracked school districts’ October 1 3rd-through-11th grade enrollment counts and the numbers of spring math CSAP and ACT test-takers for the past five years. The results are illuminating. More than 80 percent of school districts have fewer students for spring test-taking than for the fall enrollment count. In the most recent year, the 34 net-gain school districts were all small in size, acquiring a total of 119 new students among them.

Jefferson County alone received funding for 750 more students than it ended up serving and testing in the 10 grades measured. Florence — the district highlighted in the story above — experienced a net loss of 30 students, or a 2.6 percent reduction, after October 1. Certainly, multi-district online schools shed students at a faster rate than most districts. To what extent is that the result of kids leaving traditional schools for an online credit recovery program of last resort, and some of them not catching on anywhere? I don’t know. But the problem is a systemic one, not one exclusive to cyberschools.

Along comes House Bill 1306, which is scheduled to make its first hearing in the House Education Committee next Monday. The gist of the legislation is to compensate districts that experience net student gains from count day to test day, at the standard online per-pupil rate (currently $5,913.93). The remaining schools and districts that are losing students after October 1 would be held harmless. Using last year’s numbers, the state would be on the hook for less than a million dollars all told.

Because of the likely fiscal note, HB 1306 may not be long for serious consideration in the current budget climate. Nor is its “band-aid” approach to a flawed enrollment count system nearly ideal. For one thing, it doesn’t address the incentives that make serving students at risk of dropping out a low priority. Instituting multiple count dates or average daily membership (ADM) will be needed instead for Colorado in part to achieve a fair, flexible and equitable student-centered funding system for the 21st century.

While not the best solution, HB 1306 as introduced helps to shine a bright light on a real educational trend neither well nor widely understood. That alone should make next Monday’s hearing one to watch.

About our First Person series:

First Person is where Chalkbeat features personal essays by educators, students, parents, and others trying to improve public education. Read our submission guidelines here.

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