Count Day has it all Backwards

Commentary, Education, Frontier Centre

Once a year, at the end of September, a merry gathering convenes at R. B. Russell School. The festivities begin with a breakfast, not just for students and staff, but for parents and families, and continue throughout the day with pow-wows and other diversions. It sounds like fun, and probably is. But the special day has a serious purpose, one shared by all public schools. It’s “count day”, when the annual budgets of these academies, based on the number of warm bodies in place on that day, are decided.

The Public Schools Act defines “eligible enrolment” as the number of pupils in place on September 30 of the fiscal year and bases its payments to school divisions on that figure. To maximize their revenue, all schools therefore pay a great deal of attention to “count day” and stage special, widely advertised events like pizza parties to attract the highest number of students possible.

What’s the harm? This method of calculating budgets skews the incentives of a billion-dollar industry and makes public schools less effective in performing their mission.

By making budgets depend on attendance figures for a single day, the Province sends educators a very perverse signal. All that matters is how many pupils are in place on September 30. After that, it makes no difference how many become truant or drop out. Does a school teach well or poorly? Forget about that, it’s paid anyway. In fact, a school whose high performance draws transfer students throughout the year is penalized for it. Conversely, the worst schools, the ones who drive students who need to be educated away, are rewarded. The money is already in the bank.

The negative effects multiply, because the payments are not even based on enrolment figures for the current year. This year’s count day determines next year’s funding. That fact quietly degrades the purpose of open division boundaries, which allow parents some choice. If superior schools attract more customers, they have no way to be paid for the extra load. Under those conditions, it is irrational for them to accept outside applicants, and the benefits of school competition disappear.

Manitoba is not alone. Most jurisdictions base per-pupil allotments on some form of “count day.” The Province of Ontario uses a modified system that makes more sense, by calculating full-time enrolment on two days, October 31 and March 30, and averaging them. The State of Florida designates four survey weeks during the school year as the basis for per capita payments. These variations, however, simply mitigate the negative effects.

Three American states have abandoned individual count days entirely. California, New York and Texas pay schools for average daily attendance, defined as the number of students in school on a typical day. A law now being debated in the State of Michigan will do the same there. This system encourages schools to maximize attendance during the whole year, and to pay attention to the children who go missing. By law, Texas schools are required to conduct meticulous attendance records throughout the whole year.

Although these reforms are an improvement on the single count day, they, too, have their drawbacks. Schools that have chronically poor attendance records may be the very ones that need more financial support, not less. Absentee rates tend to be highest in the classrooms located in neighbourhoods with high poverty rates. Since a basic education is a proven tool for helping children transcend poverty, basing payment on daily attendance figures can defeat one of the major purposes of public schools.

In Alberta, officials have devised a better payment method based in part on student achievement, not mere attendance. In Grades X through XII, funds are allocated by means of a specific performance target: the number of course completions per student. The Province specifies how much it is willing to pay as an operating grant per course, and then multiplies that figure by the total of course completions. The minimum standards for acquiring that designation are fairly low, that a student must achieve a grade of at least 25% and must have attended at least a quarter of all classes. For students who post less than those targets, the school district is paid nothing.

It’s pretty obvious that this mixed formula affects a school’s incentives, and Alberta put it in place explicitly to add more accountability to its funding formula. It places a premium on retention and makes schools pay attention to results. Manitoba’s government has the capacity to modify its payment structure, at least in the direction of sustained enrolment instead of a single count day. The systems for tracking attendance are already in place, and the technology for estimating accurate averages exists.

Apparently the previous Tory administration was looking at using semi-annual, quarterly or monthly attendance figures instead of count days, but the New Democrats have shown no interest. As in their abandonment of standardized testing, they seem content to keep the money flowing to the school system without much regard for outcomes or performance.

Payments to schools should be based on reality, not the “pumped up” numbers established on count day.

Education Frontiers Project