Fund Schools Based on Learning, Not Attendance — Especially on Yom Kippur

Even granting that Michigan’s head count on a Jewish holiday stems from innocent, obtuse bureaucratic policies, the reliance on a single count day to determine a school’s funding is a sign of more serious problems.

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Michigan’s public schools will receive funding this year based on how many students attend on October 5, Chalkbeat reports. This “count day” falls on Yom Kippur, the holiest day of the Jewish year — when many Jewish students will be absent.

In an era of heightened consciousness around treating races, creeds, genders, and more with respect, not only does this suggest that Jewish students “don’t count,” but it also discloses a larger structural problem with how schools are funded.

Michigan’s state funding has long been tied to a single count day, which occurs the first Wednesday of October. This year that means that for each student in attendance, each school will receive roughly $9,150 — the base funding in the state’s budget.

For states that have such count days, it’s so important that some schools I’ve researched outside of Michigan hold pizza parties to ensure students attend. Of course, pizza and food would likely drive Jewish students away while fasting on Yom Kippur.

Five districts in Michigan that don’t hold school on Yom Kippur because they have large Jewish populations have received waivers from the state to use the following day as the count day instead. Yet districts in session, like Ann Arbor, must create workarounds.

Even if one grants that Michigan’s policy stems from innocent, obtuse bureaucratic policies rather than something more pernicious, the reliance on a single count day to determine a school’s funding is a sign of more serious problems.

Funding schools based on attendance on a single day — or in other states, based on their average daily attendance or the number of minutes students sit in class over the course of a year — incentivize schools to focus on what’s known as “seat time,” but not learning.

In other words, rather than pay for learning, public schools are paid based on enrollment. It’s no exaggeration to say that we’re paying schools based on the wrong end of the student. Small wonder that the focus on learning is so variable and results poor.

A better funding model would tie some portion of the money to learning progress — measured in terms of mastery — that each individual student makes over the course of the fiscal year. Such a model would incentivize learning, not just attendance.

There are schools funded this way. The New Hampshire Virtual Learning Academy Charter School, for example, receives funds as students demonstrate mastery — not just completion — of their learning objectives.

By illustration, after a student demonstrates mastery of the first 10 percent of a course’s learning objectives, the New Hampshire charter school receives 10 percent of the per pupil funding. When a student masters the next 10 percent, then the school receives the next 10 percent.

In similar fashion, in 2003 Governor Bush helped establish a success model to fund the Florida Virtual School. In this model, the school only receives per-pupil funds for those students who successfully complete and pass their courses.

No American brick-and-mortar school of which I know has a funding model that incentivizes learning. Such a formula could be a hybrid, paying for a school’s fixed physical costs, but also for each individual’s growth after accounting for each starting point.

Be skeptical that this will happen. As the chief executive of Michigan Virtual, Jamey Fitzpatrick, said, “Many policy leaders around the country have lost their appetite to support new policy frameworks that enable alternative delivery models and new accountability systems.”

And yet, they should innovate. As Fitzpatrick said, “More than ever before, we need to create more student-centered delivery options to keep students engaged so they can reach their full potential.” A better funding formula can incentivize that.

As Michigan hopefully rectifies its mistake toward Jewish students on Yom Kippur, it will benefit everyone if the state works to create something more innovative and rigorous that encourages the development of each of its students.


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