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Funding Schools? It's Easy

July 14, 2002

The equation is simple enough for any pre-algebra student: A rocky economy equals a state budget shortfall equals tough times for public-school budgets. Two months before most students start classes, school districts in Orange County are raiding reserves, putting off computer upgrades and in some cases even laying off staff to make ends meet.

But there's a variable that parents and students can manipulate to their schools' profit or loss. It's as simple as getting the kids to school.

The way funding for most districts works is that the schools get state money based on the average number of students attending each day up to April 15 of the previous school year.

If the students who are enrolled don't make it to class on a given day, whether the reason is a raging fever or a trip to Raging Waters, the schools lose money, more than $30 a day per pupil, when the state figures out a district's funding for the next school year.

So what's the big deal in $30? The Saddleback Valley Unified School District recently estimated that it lost more than $6 million in one year because of student absences, excused or otherwise.

We're not talking about the chronic truants who miss 30 days in a school year. This is the occasional parent-sponsored truancy that many families practice. A weekday trip to Disneyland ("It's so much less crowded on a schoolday.") An early start on a holiday weekend, which means the kids miss Friday classes.

Even the excused absences--a 10 a.m. visit to the dentist's office and a thought that it isn't worth bringing the child to class for just a couple of hours--could be converted into money for the schools by having students start out the day on campus, or come in afterward. Schools could run attendance contests, with rewards given after April 15 for those with the best records. It would bring in more money than magazine sales or jogathons, and expose students to more learning.

No one is suggesting that an ill child attend class. But consider this: A campaign this year to rescue the Irvine public schools from massive layoffs and bigger class sizes recommended that parents donate $100 for each child in the school district.

Imagine that parents adjusted family outings and doctor visits to get students in for roll call three more days of the year. That would amount to a de facto bailout of about $100 a child, without even reaching for a wallet. In a district such as Capistrano Unified, with 46,000-plus students, that would have added up to more than $4.5 million for the coming school year, enough to keep the district from pulling $3.8 million from its reserves, as planned, to cover the budget shortfall and have money left over.

This is math a parent can love.

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