Tuesday, April 6, 2021

Entrenched Discouragement: Assessments and Ratings

Entrenched Discouragement: 

Critical Policy Analysis of 

Enrollment and Ratings 

in Funding Formulas

H. L. Schmidt

Department of Educational Leadership

EDL 704-201: Politics of Educational Leadership

Dr. Amanda Potterton

March 22, 2021

The coronavirus pandemic of 2020 cast a harsh spotlight on the weak spots across the educational system, from infrastructure concerns to curriculum design and delivery. Underlying all these challenges, schools had to find ways to respond that fit their budgets. Budgets are the silent engine that drive--and often constrain--decisions by individual schools and districts, and allocation of these funds are in turn driven by factors that have an outsized impact: enrollment, property taxes, and student test scores. Designed to help ensure equality and to provide incentives for excellence, Critical Policy Analysis of key factors that drive budgets reveals that they often create inequality and can disincentivize achievement. In their worst application, these measurements actively entrench poor conditions in schools and widen the disparity of opportunity available to students.

Critical Policy Analysis examines the “development, implementation, and outcome” of policies through examination of “contextual and social factors, including systematic and institutional- and individual-level oppression” (Sampson, 2019). Policy analysis positions policies not as things but views them instead as “encoded in complex ways (via struggles, compromises, authoritative public interpretations and reinterpretations) and decoded in complex ways (via actors’ interpretations and meanings in relation to their history, experiences, skills, resources and context).” (Ball, 1993, emphasis added). By identifying critical concerns to evaluate the gap between educational policies’ rhetoric and their practiced reality, we can better see the “social stratification and the broader effect a given policy has on relationships of inequality and privilege” (Diem, Young, Welton, Mansfield, & Lee, 2014 as cited by Sampson, 2019). For the purposes of examining key factors in budget allocation formulas, it is helpful to see how these factors are themselves determined and how they are used as a part of the formula itself. In this paper, I will examine the first of three factors: enrollment specifically attendance as a measure of enrollment.

Proponents of limiting or cutting education budgets often focus on the notion of trimming wasteful spending as a way to reduce costs, a concept that comes from manufacturing and business analysis, not from research in best practices for educational outcomes. Such a framework devalues educational spending and looks at dollars as opposed to outcomes. In times of economic recession and during a period of public outcry against taxation, this market-based rhetoric gained traction in public opinion, resulting in elected officials who reflect contemporary sentiment. Yet qualitative research found that “permanent additional money improved student achievement and high school graduation rates and decreased poverty rates, while sharp spending cuts had the opposite effect.” (Lafortune, Rothstein, Schatzenbach, 2016). 

The emergency created by the pandemic brought the funding crisis for public schools into sharp relief: “Less funding would mean cuts in programs and personnel. And the districts that would be hit the hardest would be those with the poorest and neediest students” (Washington Post, March 15, 2021). Texas, a state that uses average daily attendance to determine district budgets in the state, saw attendance drop over 4% during the pandemic, threatening a tidal wave of cuts to already beleaguered and cash-strapped districts by creating automatic reductions through the attendance-based budget formula. Texas averages total daily attendance. Other states use attendance measures as well, and they can seem confusing and downright capricious: Some states average attendance from Fall and spring terms; Colorado uses the attendance figures from a single day in October.

Funding: Attendance, Enrollment, and the Market

Schools are funded by local (45.6%) and state (46.7%) budgets, allocated to individual schools and districts through funding formulas that can be complicated and complex and that vary from state to state (EducationData.org). This source of funding results in educational budgets becoming matters of the political landscape, skewing along the lines of public opinion more than being treated as a necessary and desirable expense for the public welfare. Two things stand out in market-driven educational budget allocation: attendance-based funding and test-score derived school and teacher ratings. These matrices are intended to provide equality (enrollment) and incentives (ratings). These two measures don't achieve their aims; in fact, they create the opposite effect, entrenching or worsening the problems these policy measures seek to address.

Attendance-based funding impoverishes school budgets. Even the broadest measure of attendance -- total enrollment-- results in diminished funds as students in a district attend private schools, are home-schooled, or drop out. This encourages parents who can afford alternative education to seek extra-public solutions, creating a positive feedback loop of scarcity for those who remain on the public school roster. Using an average of daily attendance is the worst application of this measure, actively penalizing schools where marginalized students often have attendance impediments as a factor of daily life. But even the total enrollment measurement hides the result of reducing funding as students increasingly turn to alternative educational options, whether through private schools (voucher-based, privately funded), or home-school options that reduce overall enrollment without reducing the responsibility of the district to provide quality education, much of which is tied up in fixed costs that do not change during periods of enrollment fluctuation.

Budgets are responsible for providing “equity for students;” “adequate resources to local school districts;” “predictability and stability of education resources over time;” and a finance system that “supports student learning” (NCSL, 2021). Attendance-based funding formulas create actively adverse conditions to all these aims: the variability of attendance can result in quixotic budget reductions while costs stay largely the same. In particular, when resident school-age children attend private or alternative school systems, the local budgets are reduced not only by attendance-based formulas but are often further diminished by tax-offset school choice schema that divert funding from the state coffers under a matrix that “would further magnify the disparities between rich and poor, public and private” (Potterton, Waddington, LaCour, 2021).


Examining the ways in which we measure attendance and performance in schools reveals a reliance on commercialized, commodified, market-driven concepts, most notably from the neoliberal tradition that prefers quantitative data over qualitative research. The outsized valuation of quantitative data reveals prioritization by policy makers of market-based assumptions about the purpose of education, much in line with what Sanchez found (2019). Changing the framework of the formula and analysis of the underlying assumptions implicit in the variables themselves can prioritize best practices and increase “policy knowledge” by being based on qualitative research rather than quantitative measurements, effectively transforming budget formulas “from the ground up.” (Dumas & Anderson, 2014).


Ball, S. (1993). What is policy? Text trajectories and toolboxes. The Australian Journal of Education Studies, 13 (2), 10-17. https://doi.org/10.1080/0159630930130203 

Diem, S., Young, M. D., Welton, A. D., Mansfield, K. C., & Lee, P. (2014). The intellectual landscape of critical policy analysis. International Journal of Qualitative Studies in Education, 27 (9), 1068-1090. https://doi.org/10.1080/09518398.2014.916007

Dumas, M.J., Anderson, G. Qualitative research as policy knowledge: framing policy problems and transforming education from the ground up. Education Policy Analysis Archives, 22 (11). https://dx.doi.org/10.14707/epaa.v22n11.2014 

EducationData.org, (2021). U.S. public education spending statistics [2021]: per pupil + total. https://educationdata.org/public-education-spending-statistics 

Lafortune, J., Rothstein, J., Schazenbach, D. W. (2016). School Finance Reform and the Distribution of Student Achievement. Washington Center for Economic Growth. 

Mantel, B. (2018, August 31). Education funding. CQ Researcher, 28, 705-728. www.cqreasearcher.com 

National Conference of State Legislatures (2021). The state role in education finance. https://www.ncsl.org/research/education/state-role-in-education-finance.aspx

Potterton, A., Waddington, R. J., LaCour, S. E. (2021). Tax credit proposal is really a plan or private school vouchers in Kentucky. Courier Journal, Feb 26,2021. https://www.courier-journal.com/story/opinion/2021/02/26/school-vouchers-education-opportunity-account-program-bad-kentucky/6801079002/ 

Sampson, C. (2019). “The state pulled a fast one on us”: A critical policy analysis of state-level policies affecting English Learners from district-level perspectives. Educational Policy, (33)1, 158-180. https://dx.doi.org/10.1177/0895904818807324 

Sanchez, J. (2019). Framing the common core; An analysis of four key policy actors. Teachers College Record, 121 (080306) 1-34.