Last Friday, October 5, was one of the most important school days in Washington DC. No statewide tests were given. Indeed the day has no academic significance at all. The significant of October 5 is fiscal, for that is the day of the annual DC Enrollment Audit.
Every student is counted on this day, and a schools’ entire annual state payment is based on that count.
Not surprisingly, school leaders focus on little else in the days leading up to the audit, ensuring that all of their data and student rolls are complete. And they invest enormous time in the days after the audit to ensure that the count – not only of total students but the numbers of students with disabilities and English language learners -- is correct.
It’s a crazy system.
If a student withdraws from a school on October 6, the school is still paid to educate that student for an entire year. Conversely, if a student enrolls on October 6 the school will receive no money at all for educating that student all year. The incentives are all wrong.
Moreover no account is taken for a school’s attendance rate. Schools with 95% attendance rates are paid the same as schools with 80% rates despite teaching dozens of extra students each day.
The situation is even more nonsensical for adult education schools. Adult ed students don’t tend to follow a traditional school year. They might enroll at any time. And they often don’t stay for a full school year. Yet the system ignores this reality, paying schools only in annual chunks and only for those students enrolled on October 5.
Other states have figured this out. Indiana, for example, takes several counts during the year and adjusts payments accordingly. They also pay schools with poor attendance rates less.
California pays its schools for each day a student is in attendance (about $55 per student-day – it would be much higher in DC). If a student is out sick, the school doesn't get the money. Schools self-report the data, and then are randomly audited. They pay stiff penalties if they don’t have documentation to substantiate their daily attendance reports.
Illinois uses a similar system – paying schools based on their average daily attendance.
These systems align incentives perfectly – towards high attendance, high student retention, and mid-year admits. And systems like California’s and Illinois' are actually less burdensome on schools because they rely on a system -- daily student attendance taking -- that schools already do.
It’s time for DC to learn from other states and rethink our enrollment audit.