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Public School Finance: The Count & The Test

Whenever I bring up testing in a conversation on public school finance, people inevitably roll their eyes: “Oh great, another argument for the incentivization of American public education. Who are you, Milton Friedman?” These are conditioned responses to any debate about school finance, but the testing issue creates even more pressure because people aren’t convinced that public education can buy its way out of low-performance, or that testing matters at all.

Luckily for you, I’m not talking about test scores here, or the merits of a standardized academic measurement. I’m talking about removing an infamous loophole from abstruse public funding mechanisms.

This past week I watched the fourth season of The Wire. For the uninitiated, each season follows a different central narrative of Baltimore city life. The first season introduced the drug trade and the rise of wire tapping after 9/11. The second season detoured into the city’s port system, taking only a few main characters with it. The third season returned to the inner city to tie up loose ends from season one, simultaneously providing viewers with a glimpse into municipal government corruption. Season four was about public schools.

In the fourth episode (“Refugees”), I had to explain to my girlfriend why Cutty, a reformed-thug-turned-truant-officer, was rounding up kids in a van and taking them to school for only one day. She was as frustrated as Cutty to learn that public schools are paid by “counts” of students each semester, not how well the students are treated or educated. My girlfriend empathized with Cutty, who was alarmed that public schools could be so dismissive of children’s lives after pimping them out for a few thousand dollars.

story out of New York brought this back into focus for me. Charter schools were recently accused of gaming the system and pushing low-performing students out before testing dates. All politics aside, there is a legitimate danger of any public school (charter or District) taking money for a low-performing student during “the count,” but pushing that student to leave school before “the test.” I’ll refer back to The Wire for a good definition of this practice: juking the stats.

In the end, the accusations were unfounded. In fact, the charter schools with the highest mobility rates (i.e. where students left school before testing) actually performed worse than the charter schools retaining most of their kids during testing season. This indicates that keeping kids around might behoove charters for both financial and testing reasons. Any educators reading this would also agree that anyone investing so much time in their students wouldn’t want them leaving before tests anyway, since the data gleaned from his/her test score might be valuable enough to offset a bad one.

There remains, however, the problem of “the count” vs. “the test.” Unfortunately, the fictional world of The Wire is rooted in the stark reality that nobody pays much attention to how public schools get our money.

“The count” is a big deal, especially in charter schools, where every single dollar has been earmarked since the charter application’s budget was approved. Some charter schools even have “count day” raffles, giving away things like iPads and pizza parties in order to encourage count day attendance.

The simplest iteration of “the count” is the single count. The single count is typically done in October, and sometimes includes another count in February for the second semester, but North Carolina’s funding formula includes a Membership Last Day (MLD) count. Sometimes the October count covers the whole school year, in which case a school is allocated its per pupil funding for the entire year based on a single day of measurable attendance.

The alternative to a single count is the multiple count. Multiple counts usually create an archive of student attendance throughout the year (Average Daily Attendance, or ADA). Districts in Ohio are allowed to use the largest counts for funding purposes. In some cases, a District will use a school’s first count by default and simply reconcile the difference with subsequent counts. Districts can also rely on the Average Daily Membership (ADM), which ignores multiple count attendance and focuses solely on whether or not students are still enrolled (i.e. absences count).

But multiple count systems still miss the whole point of public school funding mechanisms, namely, that we fund public schools to educate our kids, not babysit them. It doesn’t matter if they’re attending, are they being educated? How do we know they’re being educated without testing? If they’re not being educated and testing, what are we paying public schools for?

This is why I like the idea of a system by which multiple counts are done on testing dates, and a school is only paid for students present (and testing) on those dates.

For instance, imagine a District currently on an ADA system. The counts take place on October 1 and February 15th of each year, and statewide testing takes place April 13-15. I see a lot of value in paying schools for the October count (since they need money early), and moving February’s reconcile count to April.

Under this model, schools would have an incentive to keep students around for testing, and any loss in enrollment (i.e. funding) wouldn’t hit the school as hard going into the summer months. After all, losing money following a lower February count might impact testing two months later, but under the Testing Day Count model this would never be a problem.

The best thing about this model is that we can also talk about the importance of testing without getting sucked into the score debate. More than a few lobbies want to pay schools based on test performance, while other lobbies think testing is for the birds. I’m making neither case, I simply want my tax dollars working two full semesters, even if they’re collected once a year.


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