By Beth Meyerhoff, Education Legislation Advocate
In California, school districts receive funding based on the number of students who attend school or what is known as Average Daily Attendance (ADA). This funding system has become challenging for school districts today. First, total enrollment in K-12 traditional public schools has decreased by almost three percent or 170,000 students in 2020-21, according to California’s Legislative Analyst’s Office. Enrollment increases and decreases are spread unevenly across the state, however.
Secondly, attendance rates also vary by the school district and the impact of COVID-19. In a January 2022, article, the Public Policy Institute of California (PPIC) estimates that the majority of districts have attendance levels that equal 90 percent of their enrollment or higher. By contrast, Los Angeles Unified School District’s attendance is about 77.5 percent of the fall enrollment. Data from School Innovations and Achievement showed that chronic absenteeism (missing more than 10 percent of the school year) increased by more than a third from March 2020 to March 2021.
School Funding in California Depends on Average Daily Attendance (ADA)
Not all states fund their public schools the same way. Each measurement is influenced by focusing on different priorities, as the Education Commission of the States describes in a January 2022 Policy Brief. The Brief summarizes the five different ways schools count student enrollment:
- A single count on a single day.
- Two counts twice per year.
- Multiple counts over a period of time.
- An attendance average.
- A membership (or enrollment) average.
Below is a brief explanation of the most common ways state measure attendance, as well as which states use which system:
Average Daily Attendance (ADA)
California is one of seven states that use Average Daily Attendance (ADA) to determine school district funding, according to the Education Commission of the States. ADA is the average number of students in seats calculated over a state-determined period of time. Absent students are not counted in the daily count. The seven states using this measurement often cite the rationale that time spent in a physical classroom leads to improved student achievement. Along with California, those states include Idaho, Kentucky, Mississippi, Missouri, New York, and Texas.
Under ADA, districts with higher attendance rates receive more funding while those districts that have lower attendance rates (for whatever reasons), stand to lose funding. Using ADA can result in funding inequities among districts that serve different populations, particularly communities that tend to have higher rates of absenteeism. Reduced funding for school districts with absent students can reduce a district’s capacity to seek out missing kids.
Average Daily Membership (ADM)
Another method for counting students averages student enrollment numbers, rather than attendance. Average Daily Membership (ADM) measurement counts the number of students enrolled throughout all or most of the year which may enable school districts to more readily make hiring and programming decisions based on the number of students enrolled. This measurement includes absent students.
States using ADM: Arkansas, Delaware, Florida, Minnesota, Nebraska, North Carolina, North Dakota, Oklahoma, Oregon, Pennsylvania, Rhode Island, South Carolina, South Dakota, Tennessee, Vermont, and Virginia
Another method is counting how many students are enrolled on a single day or multiple periods of days. Also known as a “seat count,” students can be counted in a single count period or during multiple count periods and it is a measurement of how many students are sitting in seats on a given “count day.” Enrollment Count is used by 28 states. States can emphasize attendance on “Count Day” to ensure more accurate census reporting.
Some states include absent students in this count, basically making it an enrollment count, and some do not.
Single Count Day
This measurement is the number of students enrolled or in attendance on a certain day.
States using Single Count Day: Colorado, Connecticut, Georgia, Indiana, Iowa, Kansas, Maryland, Massachusetts, Nevada, New Hampshire, New Jersey, Utah and West Virginia.
Multiple Count Dates
This measurement is the number of students enrolled or in attendance on several dates.
States using Multiple Count Dates: Alaska, Arizona, Louisiana, Maine, Michigan, Montana, Wisconsin.
Two Other Methods
Two other methods measure students over one or more periods, some include absent students, others do not. Alabama, New Mexico, and Wyoming use a Single Count Period.
Illinois and Ohio use Multiple Count Periods.
California’s Approach Has Changed Little in Decades
California has not always used ADA to determine school funding. Prior to 1973, K-12 schools were funded by property taxes imposed by local school districts, leading to disparities in per-pupil funding. Parent John Serrano filed a lawsuit against the State of California and won, with the California Supreme Court finding that “equality of educational opportunity requires that all school districts possess an equal ability in terms of revenue to provide students with substantially equal opportunities for learning.” Until 1999, schools’ count of students was based on attendance but students with excused absences, mostly due to illness, were added to the count. After Senate Bill 727 was enacted in 1998-99, school districts no longer received funding for students who were absent from school for any reason.
Under current law, a school district’s funding is based on the greater of the prior year or current year ADA. In successive state budgets, policymakers have tried to mitigate the impact of COVID-19 absences on some districts by adjusting that rule somewhat:
- The 2020-21 Budget included a hold-harmless clause for determining district funding by permitting 2020-21 funding to be based on 2019-20 ADA rather than the 2020-21 ADA.
- The 2021-22 Budget Act allows school districts to determine ADA based on the prior year (2020-21) or current year ADA.
- The Governor’s Budget proposal for 2022-23 would fund districts based on their average attendance over the three years preceding the current year if that number exceeds their current and prior year attendance.
Legislators are proposing multiple strategies to help districts with volatile enrollment numbers and increased absenteeism due to COVID-19.
California State PTA took positions on three bills to help districts ensure more fiscal stability:
AB 1607 (Muratsuchi) – Watch – for purposes of the local control funding formula, this bill would calculate average daily attendance based on a 3-year average for those local educational agencies starting in the 2022-23 school year.
AB 1609 (Muratsuchi) – Support – for the 2022-23 fiscal year, require the department to use the greater of the 2019-20, 2020-21, 2021-22, or 2022-23 fiscal year average daily attendance for purposes of apportionments under the local control funding formula for these local educational agencies.
SB 579 (Allen) – Support – for the 2021-22 fiscal year, require the department to use the greater of the 2019-20 or 2021-22 fiscal year average daily attendance for purposes of apportionments under the local control funding formula for these local educational agencies. For the 2022-23 fiscal year, require the department to use the greater of the 2019-20, 2021-22 or 2022-23 fiscal year average daily attendance for purposes of apportionments under the local control funding formula for these local educational agencies.
Each of these bills attempts to mitigate the impact of unpredictable and volatile enrollment and average daily attendance in school districts who budget years in advance. By ensuring fiscal predictability, school districts can better allocate resources to benefit all children.