By Manel Kappagoda, program director and senior staff attorney at ChangeLab Solutions
Every year, as many as 7.5 million students nationwide miss a month of school, according to one 2012 study. It’s estimated that 15 percent of students are chronically absent, and in some areas, 30 percent of students miss school regularly. But many absent students aren’t truants, skipping school because they want to. Often, student absences are due to chronic illness, which correlates strongly with child poverty.
But some policymakers don’t see it this way. They believe students are absent from school because they want to be, and create policies that tie attendance rates to funding to incentivize school districts to make sure kids are in class. These policies—generally called attendance-based funding policies—unintentionally use students’ chronic illnesses against them, and the schools they attend.
Seven states—California, Idaho, Illinois, Kentucky, Missouri, Mississippi, and Texas—use attendance rates to determine funding levels for their school districts, allocating more money to schools with low absenteeism and less money to schools with high absenteeism. In two new ChangeLab Solutions publications, Rutgers University professor Bruce Baker explains how using attendance rates to set school funding levels penalizes certain schools, and their students, far more heavily than others.
What’s Wrong With Attendance-Based School Financing?
According to Baker, attendance-based funding hurts poor school districts more than wealthy districts. Under these regressive policies, low-income districts, which have higher rates of absenteeism for a variety of reasons, lose an inequitable amount of state aid. This is problematic for several reasons:
- Poor schools are made poorer. These schools are ill equipped to serve their students, particularly those struggling with poverty and health issues.
- Schools can’t intervene to actually improve attendance rates because they lack necessary resources.
- Many student absences are simply beyond the control of local public school officials. This is especially true for children from low-income families.
- There is little evidence that these policy strategies effectively incentivize school districts to address nonattendance.
Attendance-based school financing not only exacerbates existing financial disparities among schools, but also hurts the low-income, chronically ill children who attend the poor schools denied funding.
How Do These Policies Affect Students?
By reducing state aid to schools on the basis of student absences, states are disproportionately (and substantially) penalizing schools that serve children from lower-income families—children who are far more likely to suffer childhood obesity, asthma, and other chronic diseases, and far more likely to be absent from school as a result.
The National Health Interview Survey (NHIS) strongly links school absences, chronic health conditions, and child poverty:
- Children who struggle with obesity, developmental delays, learning disabilities, and/or asthma are up to three times more likely to miss ten or more school days per year than their healthy peers.
- Children from low-income families are more likely to suffer those health problems and learning difficulties.
- Low-income children are 86 percent more likely to be obese, 22 percent more likely to have diagnosed developmental delays, 73 percent more likely to have diagnosed learning disabilities, and 47 percent more likely to have asthma than non-poor, but otherwise equivalent, students.
The research on these relationships is incomplete, but one fact is well established: Low-income children are most likely to be regularly absent from school and to suffer from chronic health conditions. Policies that let those students’ absences determine funding levels end up depriving those very students of the resources they need to be in class.
What Can Communities Do?
The education policy community has long recognized attendance-based financing systematically reduces funding in high-poverty settings, denying resources and support to the districts that need them most. But budget deficits and financial pressures have forced state policymakers to cut corners, with little regard for the needs of children in cash-strapped districts.
Localities can buffer the effects of these state policies. Baker suggests three local strategies to improve children’s health and increase awareness about the connection between student health and attendance.
First, local policymakers, parents, and advocates should educate state policymakers about the problems with attendance-based funding. They should carefully monitor any proposed changes to school funding policies and take action to prevent the creation or expansion of attendance-based financing.
Second, stakeholders should advocate for local policies that promote children’s health. School wellness policies can prevent or address chronic disease among students, and localities can ensure both schools and the larger community have healthy food policies in place. To better understand why and under what circumstances children are missing school, schools can track the causes of school absences.
Finally, community members can push the jurisdiction to improve housing. Substandard housing conditions, such as poor air quality or pests in the home, can trigger serious health problems for children, including asthma, obesity, and developmental delay. Local policies that ensure housing is safe, stable, and well maintained can help children be healthier at home and at school.
Children may have the occasional desire to play hooky, but they typically don’t miss school by choice. For many students, school absences aren’t voluntary or sporadic—they are routine occurrences connected with more serious health conditions, and often poverty. Fortunately, localities can create policies to keep attendance rates up and kids healthy.
See ChangeLab Solutions’ library of resources to learn more about making schools healthier. Healthy housing can also improve student and community health. For more healthy housing policy solutions, check out our smokefree housing tools, our new toolkit for creating affordable rental housing, and our model healthy housing policy language.
Manel Kappagoda is a program director and senior staff attorney at ChangeLab Solutions, where she helps communities to tackle chronic disease using policy interventions. She has coauthored a number of publications on public health policy, obesity prevention policy, and the intersection of law and public health. Manel’s entire career has been focused on using law and policy tools to improve health access and outcomes in low-income communities.
Feature photo courtesy of Lydia Daniller