Bill would link school funding to attendance

Proposal worries Central Oregon superintendents

By Abby Spegman / The Bulletin

Bill in Salem — House Bill 2657 would direct the State Board of Education to not consider days a student is absent in determining state funding. Instead, beginning in 2016-17, funding would be calculated based on the number of hours of instruction a pupil receives during the school year.

Sponsors: Rep. Betty Komp, D-Woodburn

History: Oregon ranks in the top four states with the worst attendance rates, while the half-dozen states that already tie funding to attendance have much higher rates, supporters say.

What’s next: Hearing in the House Committee on Education scheduled for Monday

Online: Read the bill at www.oregonlegislature.gov

In an effort to address high rates of chronic absences among students, an Oregon lawmaker says school funding should be tied to attendance instead of enrollment, a proposal that worries some local school leaders.

Currently schools get money based on how many students are enrolled, not how many actually show up. Statewide in 2013-14, about 15 percent of K-12 students were chronically absent, which is defined as missing 10 percent or more of school days. Low-income students and students with disabilities were more likely to be chronically absent, according to data from the state’s Department of Education.

Rep. Betty Komp, D-Woodburn, a former school administrator, has introduced House Bill 2657 that would pay schools depending on how much time students are actually at school. She argues that paying schools for days students are absent, as is the case now, is a perverse fiscal incentive because many absences mean schools benefit from smaller class sizes without losing money.

But Central Oregon superintendents say tying funding to attendance is not the right way to address chronic absenteeism. The Oregon Education Association union has also expressed concerns about the bill.

“You have those kids, and just because they’re not in school doesn’t mean you’re not responsible for those kids,” said Ron Wilkinson, superintendent of Bend-La Pine Schools, where more than 25 percent of all high school students were chronically absent in 2013-14.

“I think it would be a headache that would be impossible to manage,” he said.

Komp’s bill would phase in the change. Beginning in 2016-17, kindergartners would have funds distributed via the attendance-based model, adding grades K-2 in 2017-18, K-4 in 2018-19, K-8 in 2019-20 and K-12 in 2020-21. There would be no penalty for excused absences and those taken for religious holidays.

Redmond Superintendent Michael McIntosh said it is easier to address absences among younger students, but the idea of funding depending on high schoolers showing up for school could spell trouble. Last school year, nearly 28 percent of Redmond high schoolers were chronically absent.

“As (the law) grows up, as it moves through the grade levels and into the high schools, it becomes problematic,” McIntosh said.

Jefferson County School District Superintendent Rick Molitor was more blunt. “That’s an awful bill,” he said, arguing schools shouldn’t be held accountable for something that may start at home. “There’s so many factors that come into attendance.” There, 41 percent of high schoolers were chronically absent last school year.

But supporters say this is the year for change, given the state’s $220 million investment in full-day kindergarten beginning this fall. If schools are forced to focus on attendance, they will get those new kindergartners and their parents thinking more about attendance too.

“That translates to better attendance patterns and habits in older students,” said Iris Maria Chavez, government affairs director for Stand for Children, an education advocacy group backing Komp’s bill. Chavez said money isn’t the only answer, and the bill gives schools time to understand the problem and adopt new strategies to drive up attendance.

Stand for Children says Oregon ranks in the top four states with the worst attendance rates, while the half-dozen states that already tie funding to attendance have much higher rates.

“We need to show that we value attendance,” Chavez said.

Wilkinson concedes chronic absences are an issue, but there are other ways to address it. He points to La Pine, where schools launched a series of initiatives to address the problem, including positive recognition for students with good attendance records and letters sent to the homes of students who were chronically absent. Volunteers and school staff also met with students missing the most school days to better understand why they were absent.

At La Pine High School, the chronically absent rate went down from 41 percent in 2012-13 to 30 percent in 2013-14, while at La Pine Middle School, the rate dropped from 35 to 17 percent in those years, according to the state’s school report cards.

It takes staff resources to address the problem of chronic attendance, Wilkinson said, but tying that to funding could mean cutting resources for the schools that need the most help.

The House Committee on Education planned to hold a public hearing on the bill today.

— Reporter: 541-617-7837,

aspegman@bendbulletin.com

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