Texas is responsible for educating nearly 5.4 million school-age children. However, our school finance system leaves nearly 4.3% — or 262,000 students — unfunded, which is nearly equivalent to the entire student population of Idaho or West Virginia.
This is because Texas uses attendance rather than enrollment to determine funding for our schools. Instead of providing schools the resources needed to educate every student, Texas uses a system called Average Daily Attendance to determine funding levels. Mostly simply, average daily attendance is calculated by taking the sum of the number of students that attend each day, divided by the days of instruction. However, each year, our schools set budgets and make staffing decisions based on the number of students enrolled. Schools must be prepared to offer a seat, classroom, and teacher for every student enrolled – no matter what.
The use of average daily attendance metrics has long been known to disadvantage districts with high concentrations of low-income students. Children from unstable households are more likely to have untreated or chronic health conditions, limited access to reliable transportation, or other circumstances outside their control that lead to absences.
While the statewide attendance rate is 95.7%, some districts have attendance as low as 76%. Of the 165 school districts with attendance rates below the statewide average, they have on average an economically disadvantaged student rate of 75%, which is also above the statewide average of 60% economically disadvantaged students. When not all students are counted, schools lose out on base-level funding and the additional funding generated to support special populations. For schools with a high concentration of low-income students, this funding deficit is a double-whammy.
Due to COVID-19, every school district in the state shutdown and transitioned to remote learning where attendance has been sporadic at best. Though the Texas Education Agency provides waivers and makes adjustments for attendance during times of disaster, the use of enrollment-based funding would have eliminated many administrative hurdles and reduced stress for districts during this unprecedented time. As our schools look toward potentially re-opening in the Fall, parents may remain hesitant to send their children to school on a consistent basis. Future outbreaks could impact the state as a whole or be concentrated in select areas. Enrollment-based funding will make it easier for school district leaders to decide when it’s appropriate to shut down an individual campus or the entire district.
Education in Texas and in the world is changing. As the state experiments with longer days, shorter years, and remote learning, school districts need funding for every student enrolled in order to provide comprehensive instruction. To successfully adapt to new models of education it is also important to ensure each student has the resources needed to meet our academic standards. The Legislature should build on the work of the School Finance Commission and HB 3, and evaluate what it costs to provide a high-quality education–for 100% of Texas children. These uncertain times have called for unprecedented changes in public education. Using arbitrarily-set funding levels, while also leaving out 4.3% of students, will not meet the challenges we are facing today.