Home World Skipping class costs districts thousands of dollars a day

Skipping class costs districts thousands of dollars a day


It’s the most wonderful time of the year for high school seniors, who have already declared which colleges they’ll be attending in the fall. As graduation approaches, Bay Area students can be spotted in sparkly prom dresses, soaking up the last few weeks of their senior year and maybe even skipping a class or two.

For a high schooler ditching third period history, the consequences might seem minor. But for school districts, the empty seats cost them millions of dollars each year.

Four years after the COVID-19 pandemic, schools continue to struggle with declining enrollment and persistent chronic absenteeism.

Statewide, school districts lose about $3.6 billion in annual funding due to absences, according to the California Department of Education. Last year, 93% of California’s 6 million students were out at least once and the average was 14.6 days. All told, California students amassed 80 million missed days of school in 2022-23.

The state faces a $27.6 billion budget shortfall. To close the gap, Gov. Gavin Newsom has proposed a change to minimum guaranteed payments to schools that could cost districts $12 billion. Even if negotiations reduce that figure, the formula means California schools are under constant financial pressure to pay their bills.

California is one of seven states that fund schools based on average daily attendance — the average number of students in class every day throughout the school year. Whether students are out sick or skipping class, when they’re not in their seats, schools lose money.

That’s important because districts prepare their budgets — teachers, staff and overhead costs — based on the estimated number of students enrolled at the beginning of the year. But the state only gives districts money for the number of students that show up every day.

Senator Anthony Portantino (D-Burbank) said average daily attendance is perhaps the “most inequitable” method used to fund public education.

“If you’re taking money away from a district because someone is absent, you’re not lowering their (overhead) costs, you’re just penalizing them for an absence,” Portantino said.

The money allocated to schools is based on a complex formula that involves state, federal and local funding. The base amount varies slightly for each grade level, and districts get additional money for low-income students and English language learners.

For example, Oakland Unified loses $73 for each day a first-grade student misses class, while neighboring district Piedmont Unified loses $57, based on data from the California Department of Education that show annual per-pupil amounts districts receive.

An absent high school student at Emery Unified costs the district $86, while at Dublin Unified, the amount is $65, based on CDE data.

Some districts are less impacted by student absences than others. Local property taxes that go to schools in San Jose Unified, Santa Clara Unified and Palo Alto Unified are greater than the minimum amount they would have received from the state, so financial penalties for student absences aren’t as significant.

In the Bay Area, a third of school districts are largely funded by local property taxes.

But for schools that receive most of their funding from the state, the impact of student absences can add up.

Hayward Unified School District said it averaged 1,900 daily absences for the 2022-2023 school year, resulting in a whopping $24 million in lost payments from the state — nearly $135,000 each day.

East Side Union High School District in San Jose said it averaged 1,682 daily absences that same year, adding up to $21 million, nearly $119,000 a day.

And while districts with a higher number of students from socioeconomically disadvantaged backgrounds — based in part on family income or those who are immigrants or unhoused — might get more supplemental funding, often those are the same districts being hit the hardest by attendance-based funding, said Jonathan Kaplan, a senior policy fellow with the California Budget and Policy Center.

“So in school districts where there are a large share of students who come from families with low incomes, those school districts have been disproportionately hit by this decline in enrollment and increase in chronic absenteeism,” he said.

In West Contra Costa Unified, where more than half of students fall into that category, according to the California School Dashboard, 42% of the district’s K-8 students were considered chronically absent in the 2022-23 school year. Chronically absent is defined as a student missing 10% or more of the academic year’s 180 school days.

In comparison, at San Ramon Valley Unified, where only 6% of students are considered socioeconomically disadvantaged, fewer than 10% of its K-8 students were chronically absent during the 2022-23 school year.

Now, as federal COVID relief funding is set to expire in September and education funding is under constant threat, some lawmakers are wondering if it’s time to change the way California public schools are funded.

Portantino has proposed shifting school’s funding from attendance-based to enrollment-based. Under SB 98, which he introduced in 2022, districts would be funded based on the average number of students enrolled per day, rather than attendance.

Portantino estimated schools would receive nearly $4 billion more through enrollment-based funding, some of which would go toward districts’ truancy efforts.

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