School districts grappling with low attendance rates because of the pandemic will get help from the state to keep their budgets whole.

Gov. Greg Abbott and the Texas Education Agency announced Tuesday morning that schools facing pandemic-related attendance drop-offs may be eligible for an adjustment that allows them to drop poorly attended school days from the funding formula. Texas’ public school funding scheme is largely based on average daily attendance or how many students show up for class each day.
 
The announcement comes a few weeks after House Public Education Committee Chairman Harold Dutton, D-Houston, and his committee members sent a letter to Abbott and Education Commissioner Mike Morath requesting help.

In their letter, the committee wrote that attendance has been erratic over the last year because of COVID-19. Students may have missed class because they fell ill or were exposed to the virus and quarantined.

In the year before the pandemic, the average attendance rate was roughly 95.4%. But some districts have faced attendance as low as 70% at times during the past year, the lawmakers wrote.

Dutton’s committee suggested basing attendance numbers on the average rate from 2018-19 and enrollment on the current year’s classes.

“In recent years, the Texas Legislature has taken steps both to significantly increase funding for Texas public schools, and also to focus the structure of the finance system firmly on the needs of our students,” Morath said in a statement. “This adjustment further accounts for COVID-19-related learning disruptions, and is yet another way we’re prioritizing the needs of our state’s teachers and students.”

The new finance fix will allow districts to exclude school days from their average count where schools have low percentage of attendance rates. Attendance rates will be considered low if they fall below the average of the rate from the first four six-week periods in 2019-20 — before the pandemic — TEA spokesman Frank Ward clarified. Districts will be able to use this adjustment for the first 24 weeks of the school year.

“Providing this adjustment to the 2021-22 school year will ensure school systems have the funding they need to retain the best and brightest teachers and provide quality education to all public school students across Texas,” Abbott said in a statement.

This isn’t the first time Texas officials have made funding adjustments during the pandemic. State leaders issued a “hold harmless” period that meant districts weren’t penalized for unexpected declines last school year. Districts were funded based on attendance projections made before the pandemic.

Many other states fund their schools based on enrollment rather than attendance, which some argue establishes a more stable budget for the entirety of the school year. In states that fund schools based on how many students show up each day, crises like the pandemic could mean more turbulent budgeting seasons.

Previous legislative proposals to fund Texas schools on enrollment rather than attendance have been unsuccessful at the statehouse.

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