News broke early last week that the Michigan House of Representatives reached a bipartisan agreement on a K-12 budget for the 2019-20 school year, notably without the input of Governor Whitmer. By the end of the week, a House/Senate conference committee had ironed out key differences between the two chambers and readied a final budget that they presented to the Governor last Thursday.
Included in the budget is one piece of the funding puzzle school officials had been waiting for – each district’s per-pupil funding amount. The final piece – the number of students that districts can count in enrollment – will be revealed after the October 2 count day. This is the day that schools take attendance and report back to the state the number of students they serve.
With that piece in hand, school officials will have a clearer picture of their financial situation for the current year.
Enrollments are declining all over the state, part of a general national trend of lower birth rates and smaller families, as well as a shrinking or slow-growing state. When school funding is based on head counts, districts work very hard to maximize the heads in the room on count days. Some schools offer special inducements to make sure no one misses school, particularly in districts where consistent attendance can be a problem. In Detroit, schools have held out the lure of pizza parties and gift-card giveaways, to use but one example.
Under Michigan’s school funding system, district operating budgets are largely determined by the number of students enrolled and the per-pupil foundation grant set annually as part of the state budget. Under the budget sent to Governor Whitmer last week, schools now know one piece of this equation. Excluding a handful of high-spending districts, nearly all will receive a grant between $8,111 and $8,529 per-pupil. The lowest-spending districts will see a $240 per-pupil bump compared to 2018-19, while those at the top will receive a $120 increase.
The first of two count days conducted each school year occurs on the first Wednesday in October (October 2 this year). This fall count is “blended” with the count from the previous spring to arrive at a total enrollment figure. Because the October student count carries the greatest weight (90 percent), a lot is riding on the result of count day. Using the previous spring count is intended to help declining enrollment districts ease into reduced funding levels.
Michigan has been using the two-day count mechanism since the adoption of Proposal A in 1994. States vary in the methods they employ to count students in public schools – ranging from a single-day count to averaging daily attendance across the entire school year. Each method has its pluses and minuses. We are one of 10 states using a multiple count day method.
Michigan’s shrinking population, combined with lower birth rates, means that the school-age population has been declining. After continuously growing through the 1990s and early 2000s, statewide enrollments have been on a continuous decline since 2003. Total public school membership has shrunk nearly 17 percent. As a result, budgeting for declining enrollment is the new norm.
Over two-thirds of all traditional public school districts saw an enrollment decline last year and statewide enrollments are projected to fall again. This portends a continuation of the long-term declining enrollment trend for many districts.
As the results of next week’s student count become known, school officials will revisit their original budgets to see where things stand. If their original student estimates were too optimistic, spending adjustments will have to be made in the coming weeks to balance budgets. For many, declining enrollment is nothing new, rather next week’s count will reveal the magnitude of the decline.