The New Math: Counting NJ’s School Children

John Mooney | April 25, 2012 | Education
Education advocates say the way Christie plans to add the numbers will hurt poor urban districts

New Jersey’s school funding formula is based on the premise that the state’s money follows the child, give or take a few big conditions.

But now one of the latest debates in Trenton is how the state is going to be counting how many children there are in the first place.

As part of his proposed 2012 budget, Gov. Chris Christie has proposed scrapping the state’s longtime practice of basing the annual enrollment count in every district on the number of children enrolled on Oct. 15 of a given year.

Instead, the Christie administration proposed moving to a system of basing the count off a school’s “average daily attendance” over the last three years, or roughly the number of students in the building on a typical day.

The administration has hedged since then and said it will consider other methods going forward. But the notion of changing the count has stirred concerns among some school advocates, as well as Democratic lawmakers, who contend it will reduce funding to districts where attendance can be more problematic, namely lower income urban districts.

It’s an issue that has played out in other states as well, with some illustrative lessons.

The topic came up at the Assembly budget committee hearing on the Christie school funding plan on Monday, where the committee’s chairman raised it in his opening round of questions to acting education commissioner Chris Cerf.

Cerf said the program is needed to provide an incentive to districts to bring students back into schools where he said there could be chronic absenteeism. He cited state statistics that show attendance rates in some districts below 90 percent.

“That’s a lot of children,” Cerf said, adding that millions of hours of instructional time are potentially lost.

But the chairman, state Assemblyman Vincent Prieto (D-Hudson), questioned whether cutting funds was the answer. “Can you say that taking money away from those children is helping them?” Prieto asked.

According to the legislature’s own staff analysis, it could be more than just urban districts. A report by the Office of Legislative Services said three quarters of all districts would see their counts reduced under the administration’s plans.

Still, in terms of state aid, it would hit lower income districts the hardest, the OLS report said, especially those districts that fall under the Abbott v. Burke school funding rulings, including Newark, Paterson and Camden. For them, it could be more than $100 million in aid reductions.

Some have come to the administration’s defense. Cerf this week visited Fort Lee schools to trumpet the school funding plan, and its superintendent said his district would only benefit from a truer count of its students.

Half of all Fort Lee students are from Korean families, with many coming and going with changing jobs. Superintendent Steven Engravalle said his enrollment can rise as much as 100 students from beginning to end.

“We may get students enrolling for three or four months of the year,” he said. “What I’m looking for is what I can have for the kids I will have in June.”

But critics contend this is just another step by Christie to pull back funding for urban districts, especially those falling under Abbott. Bruce Baker, a Rutgers education professor who is a frequent critic of the administration’s school funding plans, called the attendance rate change an “immediate red flag” on Christie’s intentions.

He said the single day count allows schools to better predict their needs and budget for them. “I see the point for a midyear correction, but I also recognize that district budgeting is an annual process,” he said.

Other states’ practices give a varied picture to how the issue has been addressed across the country.

New Jersey is just one of 10 states that use a single-day count, a dwindling list in the last few years. The most popular remains the “average daily membership,” a method that looks at the enrollment — and not necessarily attendance — at multiple points in the year.

But average daily attendance (ADA) counts are increasingly being considered by states, although still just seven have adopted the method so far, including New York, California and Texas.

”We are seeing more states move to ADA,” said Michael Griffith, a policy analysts with the Education Commission of the States, a Denver-based clearinghouse. “The general idea is it is more fair and counts for the students you are actually teaching.”

But he said it has not been without its controversy, and he agreed there is little doubt that it harms districts with declining enrollments and more difficult attendance records. He also questioned if it leads to better attendance, saying there is no research to that claim.

Such debate has surfaced in Griffith’s own state, where a Colorado citizens group has campaigned to move off a single-day count but yet to succeed. And the reasons weren’t just over who would be harmed or helped, he said.

“There was a feeling that our data systems just weren’t robust enough for an average attendance count,” Griffith said.

Still, he expects the topic to be revisited in Colorado and other states. “However you do it, you will always have the winners and losers and why you will always get push back,” he said.