Enrollment or attendance? Splitting hairs over K-12 funding in Idaho

How Idaho carves up $2 billion for its K-12 schools is a focal point every legislative session.

Any normal year, state budget writers build annual education budgets around the average daily attendance of Idaho’s more than 310,000 public K-12 students.

But the last two years have been anything but normal. Last year — and now again this year — the State Board of Education temporarily moved K-12 schools from an attendance-based model to an enrollment-based one.

Why? And how do these changes play into the broader issue of K-12 funding in Idaho?

Let’s split some K-12 funding hairs.

First, the state isn’t the only funding source for Idaho’s public K-12 schools. It’s just the biggest. By far.

This school year, K-12’s portion of the state funding pie sits at $2.1 billion, almost half of Idaho’s entire budget. Schools statewide also have access to about $264 million from the feds and some $587 million from local tax levies.

But not all schools can tap into local funds. Idaho’s 75 public charter schools lack local taxing privileges, though the state shells out some extra money to help them cover things like building expenses.

And that doesn’t include an unprecedented influx of federal COVID-19 relief funds flowing to Idaho’s schools during the pandemic. As of October, Uncle Sam had earmarked some $850 million in one-time payouts to public K-12 here.

Still with me?

Let’s just focus for now on that $2.1 billion, the state’s share.

As mentioned, daily attendance is Idaho’s funding metric of choice, and has been since 1994. School leaders report average attendance numbers to the state and the state disperses payments accordingly.

Linking dollars to attendance is an accountability measure that, some say, encourages schools to keep kids showing up regularly.

But when COVID-19 shifted learning online and found school leaders telling more sick kids to stay home, administrators across Idaho saw some of their state payouts circling the drain. That’s why the State Board shifted temporarily to an enrollment-based model last August, and again last week.

The change bases state funding on more stable K-12 enrollments rather than more shifty daily attendances, which become more uncertain during a public health crisis.

It also removes some of the headache for schools. Under the attendance model, administrators have to provide services to all who enroll, not knowing how often kids will attend. 

But the temporary change shifts some uncertainty back to the state, since an enrollment metric allows a full measure of payments to flow to schools even when kids don’t show up.

That idea doesn’t sit well with some lawmakers in Idaho’s conservative Legislature.

Simply put, educators want money tied to students who enroll. Lawmakers want money tied to students who actually show up. 

The State Board can make the change temporarily to help schools, but a permanent shift requires approval from … Idaho’s conservative Legislature.

These issues get to the heart of a years-long push-and-pull between lawmakers and school leaders, and set the stage for more debate this legislative session.

Calls for change have ramped up in recent months.

“The time is right: we know that an attendance-based system does not work, and the pandemic has shown us that it needs to change for good,” several current and past school K-12 superintendents wrote in an October op ed.

Idaho remains one of just six states still using an attendance metric, according to the Education Commission of the States.

But lawmakers have talking points too. Schools would have found ways to “get kids back in the classroom because they would have lost funding” had the State Board not made the temporary shift last school year, House Education Committee chair Lance Clow claimed in a floor debate last session.

“Because we changed the enrollment, many schools that don’t have anybody in their schools right now are getting full funding as though the kids were there,” Clow added. “I’m not saying that’s good, I’m not saying that’s bad, things are different.”

Either way, the pandemic has given Idaho educators a taste of change, and some don’t want to go back.

“Please contact your local lawmaker and urge him or her to support enrollment-based funding,” the same group of superintendents wrote in October.

Devin Bodkin

About Devin Bodkin

EdNews assistant editor and reporter Devin Bodkin is a former high school English teacher who specializes in stories about charter schools and educating students who live in poverty. He lives and works in East Idaho. Follow Devin on Twitter @dsbodkin. He can be reached by email at [email protected].

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