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Editorial: Seek stability, fairness in student count

The Detroit News

Schools in Michigan have lots to worry about with the “start” of the academic year quickly approaching. What that will look like will vary, and safety of students and staff is paramount. Should students be in the classroom? Online only? A mix of both? 

As school administrators grapple with these disparate frameworks, state lawmakers are putting together back-to-school guidelines. Gov. Gretchen Whitmer has her own ideas of what schools should be doing as well.

At the heart of many of these discussions are budget questions. And though schools’ new budget year began July 1, legislative leaders are just now turning to the 2021 fiscal year budget, which begins Oct. 1. 

Students desks and other materials are stacked up in the Dickinson West Elementary School hallway as crews prepare classrooms for this year's social distancing requirements.

While they were spared in the current fiscal year, schools fear cuts, which are likely given shortfalls caused by the coronavirus. And much depends on what Congress chooses to do, although nothing is certain there.

That’s why education officials, including state Superintendent Michael Rice, are asking the Legislature to offer schools some budget certainty in how they are allowed to count students, in addition to more flexibility with seat-time requirements and daily attendance. 

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The number of students in every district determines how much funding it receives, as Michigan ties funding to each pupil. 

“Count day” questions are tied to each year’s state budget process and the School Aid Fund. Two days a year — in October and February — schools are required to count all students physically present, and that number gets reported to the state Department of Education. Ninety percent of a school’s funding is determined based on the fall count, which this year falls on Oct. 7. 

The problem is fairly obvious. Some large districts have already decided to move online only this fall, including Ann Arbor and Lansing. So how do these schools count students in this new format?

This does pose a challenge, and that’s why Rice and several school associations are requesting the Legislature allow districts to base their enrollment numbers off the previous year’s count. That would offer them some set target on which to base their budgets. 

In recent testimony before the Senate Education Committee, Rice raised the ire of school choice proponents with his suggestion of freezing enrollment to reduce the movement of students to other districts (in other words, nix the financial incentive for competing districts to increase their enrollment). 

Great Lakes Education Project Executive Director Beth DeShone referred to this as wanting to “hold families hostage from potential education opportunities that best meet the needs of students.”

It’s true that families need as many options as possible right now, and many are choosing something different this year depending on their situation. And counting students in online-only formats is not unprecedented. Michigan’s cyber charter schools already have a model in place that could be adopted by other districts. 

Lawmakers need to find some sort of compromise between giving districts stability while not punishing other schools that have taken on more students this fall.