How States Count Students to Determine Funding: A Call for Change

Attendance is a powerful metric that can help students who may need additional support social, cognitive, or otherwise. However, problems arise when school district attendance rates are tied to dollars. States that use attendance-based methodologies (instead of enrollment) risk underfunding districts with the greatest populations of high-needs students — especially now. 

Methods for Counting Students

State and local funding constitute, on average, about 90% of school district revenue nationwide. In many states, the local funding contributions flow through the state treasury en route to school districts. In either case, states use an enrollment number of some kind to allocate state-calculated revenue to districts on a per-pupil basis.

This is not as straightforward as it may sound. Most state policies call for a fall enrollment count. This count typically happens through one or a combination of the following methods: 
  • Average Daily Attendance (ADA): The average number of students in seats in district schools calculated over a state-determined period of time (for example, October, August through October, etc.).
  • Average Daily Membership (ADM): The average number of students enrolled in a district calculated over a state-determined period of time.
  • Seat Count(s): Students in seats on a given “count day.”

The table below provides an overview of counting methodologies by state. 

Count Method Number of States States
Single Count Date 12 Colorado, Delaware, Connecticut, Indiana, Iowa, Kansas, Maryland, Massachusetts, Nevada, New Jersey, South Dakota, West Virginia
Multiple Count Dates 9 Arizona, Georgia, Hawaii, Louisiana, Maine, Michigan, Montana, Washington, Wisconsin
Average Daily Attendance (ADA) 7 California, Idaho, Kentucky, Mississippi, Missouri, New York, Texas
Average Daily Membership (ADM) 15 Arkansas, Minnesota, Nebraska, New Hampshire, North Carolina, North Dakota, Oklahoma, Oregon, Pennsylvania, Rhode Island, South Carolina, Tennessee, Utah, Vermont, Virginia
Single Count Period 4 Alabama, Alaska, New Mexico, Wyoming
Multiple Count Periods 3 Florida, Illinois, Ohio

Adapted from Average Daily Attendance (2011). Contact your state for the most up-to-date information on count methodology. 

Why the Method Matters

The number of students a state uses for school district revenue calculations determines the amount of total revenue a district receives. That’s a big deal. So how states arrive at that number of students matters a lot

ADA is presently used by seven states and is perhaps the most inequitable methodology in practice. ADA risks undercounting enrollment — in particular, the highest-need portion of a district’s enrolled students. The consequence of undercounting is an underfunded school district. 

Seat count methods used by at least 28 states are likewise sensitive to absenteeism, but less so than ADA. This is because “Count Day” states can emphasize attendance in order to ensure more accurate census reporting.

But COVID-19 and related school closures create vast uncertainty with regard to what schooling, as an institution, will look like for the 2020-2021 school year. This uncertainty has major implications for the mechanisms that states and local governments use to determine district-level resource allocation, especially attendance-based enrollment calculations.  

(Learn more about how state and local dollars fund public schools here.)

What next?

In this pandemic-era, attendance-based enrollment calculations are no longer a viable policy option for state counts. Continued use of fall enrollment calculation methodologies without modification is risky because of the likelihood for biased (low) enrollment counts for school districts and consequential reductions in total revenue, even for districts tasked with educating a larger number of students. 

Instead, policies should consider either of the following options: 

  1. Phased enrollment calculations that wait for full re-opening to reconcile actual and reliable enrollment calculations with existing enrollment; or 
  2. Utilization of existing enrollment weighted with existing enrollment trend data.

Want to chat with our District Partners for more information on this and other challenges related to fiscal equity? Book time to get set-up for free strategic consulting sessions. 

About the Author

Justin Dayhoff

Justin Dayhoff, Senior Account Advisor, has more than a decade of experience working directly in and with public schools. His focus is school finance, with particular emphasis on school, district and state school funding models that attend to advancing vertical fiscal equity for students.