Will Flanders, Research Director
Friday, September 17, is a critically important day for school districts around the state of Wisconsin. Some schools in the Milwaukee Public School system have put up signs encouraging students to attend, and a popular lunch item – “mock chicken leg” – is on the menu to encourage students to show up. In Kenosha, attendance on the Third Friday has become a political football, with some parents threatening to hold students out of school that day in protest of the district’s masking policy, and district officials begging them to reconsider. Why is this a such a big deal? Attendance on the “Third Friday Count” date is used to determine the amount of funding that schools will be eligible for in the subsequent school year, and districts pull out all the stops to get kids into the building for this date.
The Third Friday count date may have made sense at a time when it was implemented. But we are no longer in that era. Daily attendance in schools can be taken and transmitted to the Department of Public Instruction (DPI) nearly instantaneously. Like many other antiquated government practices, it is well past time for a clean break.
In WILL’s recent report on school finance reform, we proposed that Wisconsin move towards a system where funding follows the student rather than being tied directly to a school district. Under the most ideal system, where a student is attending school on a daily basis would be provided to DPI, and that student’s funding would go into that school’s coffers. But more intermediate steps, such as providing funding on a weekly or monthly basis, could be considered as well. In many instances, such a system could actually serve to benefit school districts. Under the current system, if a student moves into the district in the middle of the school year, no additional funding is provided for that student. n a system that works more dynamically, school districts could receive funding for that student almost immediately.
A move towards such a system would also likely require a move away from the three-year rolling average of attendance that is used by public schools. Under this system, school districts continue to receive partial funding for a student for three years after they no longer attend school in the district. This system helps smooth over enrollment losses for districts with declining enrollment, but makes a dynamic, market-based school funding system impossible.
In the study of public policy, there is a concept known as “bureaucratic inertia.” In systems in which there is little market pressure for efficiency, like government, there is little reason to move on from the ways in which things have always been done, even if better ways have become possible. There are countless examples of bureaucratic inertia in Wisconsin, but reliance on a single date to count students is one of the most absurd examples.