By BRADY HOLT
ANNAPOLIS (March 19, 2010)—A Republican proposal to fund local school systems based on a more accurate number of students attending classes has sparked criticism that the move would siphon money from the jurisdictions that need it most.
The state currently allocates funding to schools based on annual head counts of students taken Sept. 30. House Minority Leader Anthony O'Donnell has proposed instead using estimates of a school's average daily attendance, a figure already collected by the state Department of Education.
"If the formula is going to be driven by a measure ... it ought to be the most accurate measure possible," O'Donnell said at a Wednesday hearing on his average daily attendance bill before the House Ways and Means Committee. "Not a system that says on a certain day of September that we're going to take a picture of your kids in their seats and that's your attendance for the year."
Because many students drop out of school after Sept. 30, every school system would see its state funding cut if O'Donnell's plan came to fruition—$168 million statewide in the 2011 fiscal year, according to an analysis by the state's Department of Legislative Services.
The department's analysts further project that school systems "will have some success in decreasing absentee rates as a result of the legislation"—that is to say, they would work harder to keep students in their seats to preserve state funding.
Nonetheless, the drop in education funding would steadily increase to a projected $181 million in 2015, and the jurisdictions with the poorest attendance rates would see the biggest cuts. Next year, Baltimore alone would see a $56 million cut under the O'Donnell proposal, and Prince George's would lose $30 million.
Baltimore has by far the state's lowest average daily attendance rates—on average, nearly one in 10 enrolled students is absent on any given day, compared to a 5.7 percent absence rate statewide.
Opponents of the O'Donnell plan say schools still need to support students who don't always come to class. John Woolums of the Maryland Association of Boards of Education, testified against the bill to say that schools must maintain staff and facilities based on enrollment, not attendance.
And in many cases, the opponents say, these students need even more help than their counterparts who come to class more often.
"We want to make sure that we support additional resources for people who are the most at risk," said JaCina Stanton, who testified against the bill on behalf of the Maryland Education Coalition.
O'Donnell raised the average daily attendance issue as a cost-saving measure last month as part of a series of proposed budget cuts that totaled $830 million. O'Donnell and other Republicans have said the reduced spending is necessary to fix a projected long-term structural deficit.
Delegate Carolyn Howard, D-Prince George's, said using an attendance formula that cuts each school district's funding is "a bad idea."
"You don't want to gain (for the state) by taking money from the counties," Howard said.
O'Donnell said the only money that would be cut goes against the spirit of per-pupil funding.
"We're not talking about defunding the school systems. We're talking about going to a more accurate measure of who they're providing services to," O'Donnell said. "We're going to pay for the students we're actually providing educational services to, not an artificially inflated number."
The average daily attendance bill has 24 co-sponsors, all Republicans.
Capital News Service contributed to this report.