As COVID-19 complicates enrollment counts, public schools brace for impact on funding
MILWAUKEE — For schools across Wisconsin, Friday could turn out to be the single most important day on the calendar this year.
The third Friday in September is significant every year for Wisconsin public schools and private schools that accept children on taxpayer-funded vouchers. By law, students counted as enrolled on that date dictate in large part state and local funding for the current school year – and in many cases beyond.
The date is different for schools in other states, but the consequences are largely the same, and the coronavirus pandemic is complicating this year's counts all over as schools struggle to connect with students online, and families move their children to different schools or pull them out altogether to be home-schooled.
"We're anticipating the counts will be down," said John Bales, executive director of the Wisconsin Association of School District Administrators.
"Accessing kids will be problematic this fall. ... We have plenty of instances where families are simply not engaging their children, in-person and virtually. I understand parents' concerns. But this will impede children's learning, and it hurts from the financial perspective."
Any financial hit would come as schools have invested millions in new technology and protective equipment and supplies to prepare for in-person and virtual learning. And public schools already are bracing for possible funding cuts in the 2021-23 biennium because of a projected decline in state tax revenue as a result of the pandemic.
The coronavirus has complicated the enrollment counts, particularly in districts that are starting the school year virtually.
At Milwaukee Public Schools, Wisconsin's largest district with about 75,000 students, staff members began their outreach to families even before the school year started, Superintendent Keith Posley said.
Through last week, he said, there were about 3,000 students still unaccounted for, compared with 1,147 the week before the third Friday count last year.
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"Our social workers, school liaisons, our paras, our safeties, everyone is reaching out, making calls on a daily basis ... knocking on doors and leaving letters trying to track down students," Posley said.
Smaller districts had the same problem, just on a different scale. As of late August, the Brown Deer School District was struggling to locate about 600 students, but that has since been narrowed to fewer than 100.
The School District Administrators Association has asked the Legislature to hold public schools harmless for enrollment shifts created by the coronavirus, by, for example, using enrollment data from last year or the average of the past three years.
Lawmakers are not expected to return to the Capitol until January.
Some flexibility because of pandemic
The third-Friday count is in some ways a misnomer. The fall school enrollment counts have traditionally been centered on that date. But schools may also include any students who attend at least one day before and one day after, as long as they weren't enrolled in another school in the interim.
Schools had requested more flexibility this year because of the disruptions caused by the pandemic. The state Department of Public Instruction said it could not alter that procedure, but is allowing some flexibility, for example around documentation.
"We've assured districts they can count every child they're educating, whether or not a given mode of instruction exactly fits into how their data systems record attendance," said Daniel Bush, DPI's director of finance. "We do not want technical issues to keep districts from counting students."
The enrollment counts will be made public in mid-October, along with general school aids.
For traditional public schools, the September 2020 pupil count will affect tax levies as well as state and federal school funding over the next three years because funding is tied to a three-year average, Bush said. The count also will affect the annual per-pupil payments for private voucher and independent public charter schools.
The transfer of students between schools complicates the enrollment-funding picture. Students who move between public and private schools after the third-Friday count generally don't bring that state aid with them. That is likely to be exacerbated this year as parents move their children to other districts and private schools to find instructional models that work for them.
Now, a state lawmaker has introduced a bill that would make it much easier for families to move their students throughout the 2020-21 school year – a measure critics say would push more taxpayer funding to private schools and further destabilize public school budgets.
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The measure, introduced by Sen. Chris Kapenga, R-Delafield, would explicitly list the instructional model as an allowable reason for a transfer under alternative open enrollment, and it would eliminate a home district's ability to veto a transfer.
It would also remove the cap on the number of students a district can lose to private voucher schools under one of the state's parental choice programs.
Kapenga said he is not sure how the bill would impact school funding.
"We'll have to take a look at that," he said.
Bales said it would be detrimental to districts financially, adding, "it will be disruptive to the continuity of learning for kids, as well."