Hoffman: Student enrollment is higher than it appears

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Hoffman: Student enrollment is higher than it appears

Sat, 12/25/2021 - 6:06am -- tim

by Jack Hoffman, Public Assets Institute We’ve all heard the complaint: Why does Vermont education spending continue to rise when student enrollment has declined?

The answer can be found in the UVM student weighting study released in late 2019 and in the spotlight for the last 6 months. There may be approximately 87,000 actual students in Vermont public schools on any given day, but we have the equivalent of 137,000 or 163,000 students, depending on which set of weights is applied.

Student weighting is a common device used to adjust for the fact that school districts need to expend additional resources so that certain students achieve the same level of performance as their peers. A student in poverty, for example, or a student whose first language isn’t English is given additional weight—that is, counted as fractionally more than one student.

In most other states, weighting results in a direct increase in funding for each weighted student. With Vermont’s unique funding system, the effect of weighting is less direct, but the intention is the same: to provide additional resources for weighted students.

(While weighting is a useful tool for calculating additional educational costs, it creates problems when it is used to allocate money to cover those additional costs. It increases spending disparities, but that’s a topic for another blog.)

Thinking of weighting as adding students can help us grasp what we’ve been hearing for years from teachers, principals, nurses, counselors, and others who spend time in schools every day. These people on the front lines tell us that costs continue to rise because students come to school with more social, behavioral, and health problems and schools have to do more in response. Nearly all of these educators say many of the additional demands on schools and school officials have their root in poverty.

Quantifying the additional cost has been difficult. Teachers and administrators can provide anecdotes and explain, for example, why it can require three adults to deal with a single student acting out. Superintendents can point to the number of additional mental health counselors they’ve hired without any additional funding earmarked for such staff. But no one has said: This is the cost of all of our additional responsibilities. This is why school budgets haven’t gone down.

The UVM study analyzed what it said were the additional educational costs associated with poverty, speaking English as a second language, middle and high school grades, school size, and a school’s geographic isolation. Those costs were then converted to weights: for each student in poverty, a school should get credit for having X additional students; for an English language learner, Y additional students; and so on.

The initial study—based on fiscal 2018 data and on assumptions that have since changed—concluded that Vermont had 163,000 weighted students, not quite double the number of actual students in Vermont’s public schools. A legislative Task Force has spent six months analyzing, dissecting, and refining the study. Based on more current data, new criteria for measuring poverty, and other adjustments, projections now show Vermont has a little more than 137,000 weighted students.

What we learn from the weighting study is that while our actual student enrollment has been going down, we haven’t been recognizing the full cost of educating all of our students. We have been using weights in our funding system, but they only produce a total of about 92,000 weighted students. It’s as if we’ve been overlooking 45,000 students.

Acknowledging the additional cost of weighted students is no doubt frustrating to those who argue that Vermont spends too much on education. But the weighting study actually offers them hope.

A lot of the additional students are the result of poverty weighting. If Vermont set a goal to reduce poverty, it could reduce the number of weighted poverty students. In the long term, that would cost less and be better for everyone than continuing to use our schools to undo the damaging effects of poverty.