[r63] Messmer Report: When Desks Go Empty

Posted by: Zach Weismiller  | Friday, September 3, 2010

As I've mentioned, legislators are trickling through the Statehouse this month for small groups called interim summer committee meetings.

These meetings help jumpstart the process of crafting bills, so that when session starts in earnest in January, a bulk of the homework will be done.  The goal is to be ready to turn policy proposals that have already been studied during the interim into law.

Last week, the theme was how to handle students that are no longer sitting in the classroom. One committee met to discuss chronic absenteeism, and the other partially addressed a unique funding problem: how to fund schools that have students that have moved away from the district permanently.

As it turns out, the number of chronically absent students dropped by almost 10,000 between 2006 and 2009  (chronically absent being defined as missing 10 or more days per year without excuse).

While only a fraction of a percentage of all Hoosier students are chronically absent each year, the total number is around 50,000.

"Chronic absence," read one report given to the committee, "may be higher in families that do not understand the importance of regular attendance, are highly mobile, face multiple risk factors, or who are poor and lack basic resources."

Witnesses before the committee also testified to the importance of holding students' interest in classes.

The fact is, students tend to disengage when lectured at. They prefer-and retain more information from-vibrant activities such as discussions, debates, group presentations and role playing.

Of course, this only underscores the need for the state to find and retain the most dedicated and enthusiastic teachers for our schools, whatever that takes.

Speaking of dedicated and enthusiastic teachers, in one township, schools have implemented a number of creative ways to bring down absenteeism, including purchasing alarm clocks for habitually tardy families who claimed they did not have one.

Teachers there have even gone so far as to make personal wakeup calls for certain families to make sure their children  get to school on time.

So what happens when a student stops coming to their school for good?

If a student drops out, moves away,  is transferred, or otherwise leaves the school,  they become a "ghost" student. An interesting funding mechanism then kicks in called the "de-ghoster."

When a student ceases to attend a school, the school can't always adjust the next year's class sizes and its fixed costs to accommodate the decline in student enrollment right away.

So they continue to receive a decreasing stipend from the state for several years in place of the funding they were originally receiving for that student.

This is a huge source of revenue for some school districts, where student populations are declining.

A recent article from the Northwest Times of Indiana (a region where many schools benefit from the extra money brought in by the de-ghoster) explains the need for it:

"If a school has 60 third-graders in three classes of 20 students, but loses eight of them the next year, should the school cram the 52 fourth-graders into two classes of 26 students?

"With the de-ghoster, the school can afford to keep three classes to avoid dramatic increases in class size and to more easily accommodate new students."

Indiana schools previously received five years of decreasing funding for each 'ghost' student, but now receive only three.  

On the flip side of the argument, some schools are growing so fast that students attend classes in mobile classrooms (usually a temporary shelter such as a trailer).  These schools maintain that the current education dollars are not enough to keep up with the explosive growth in student population. 

This topic will be studied and debated throughout the fall and into the next legislative session.

As always, if you have further questions about any of these issues, feel free to call my Statehouse office directly at 317-232-9648 or toll free at 1-800-382-9841.