Wisconsin Chief Seeking End to Attendance ‘Dishonesty’

By Debra Viadero — October 25, 1989 3 min read

For many Milwaukee students, the third Friday in September has become an unofficial school celebration.

This year, for example, every student who came to class at Oliver Wendell Holmes Elementary School on that day was given a plastic puzzle. Parkman Middle School students participated in a raffle for radios, free movie passes, and coupons for meals at local fast-food restaurants.

The homeroom at Burdick Elementary School with the best attendance was treated to a pizza party, while other schools invited parents to picnics or held special schoolwide pep rallies.

The reason for all the hoopla, however, is more bureaucratic than festive. The third Friday in September is one of only two days a year when Wisconsin officially counts student enrollment.

Because the head counts determine how much state aid each district will receive during the next year, principals go out of their way to entice students to come to school then.

The practice, a longstanding one in Wisconsin, is common to many other states as well.

This year, though, state Superintendent of Public Instruction Herbert J. Grover has let it be known he thinks some of the incentives may be getting out of hand--particularly in districts such as Milwaukee.

‘Institutional Dishonesty’

“I do worry about having all sorts of enticements and parties for the purpose of getting children to come to school on the third Friday in September and inflating the attendance figures,” Mr. Grover said. “It’s institutional dishonesty.”

Mr. Grover has been publicly musing on the prospect of asking the legislature to base state aid on average-daily-attendance figures, instead of the twice-a-year count. Such a system, he said, might encourage school officials to make more of an effort to keep students in school throughout the year.

But, in Milwaukee and other urban school districts in the state where truancy is a problem, Mr. Grover said, the idea is being “greeted with less than enthusiasm.”

Based on a computer calculation conducted several years ago, Milwaukee school officials estimate that, under an average-daily-atten8dance system, they would lose $10 million in state aid.

Milwaukee’s loss, however, would be a gain for other districts where average attendance is higher. That potential shift suggests that there may someday be support in the legislature for changing the attendance standard to the benefit of rural and suburban districts.

A similar proposal introduced in the legislature a few years ago, however, failed to pass. And Mr. Grover said he has no plans to actively pursue changes in the current system.

“I think we’ll wait and see how the districts fare with average daily attendance this year,” he said.

Pressure To Produce

In response to Mr. Grover’s concerns, Milwaukee officials argue that truancy is often an indication of poverty and other social problems that are beyond the reach of the schools.

“Every district doesn’t serve the same set of kids,” said Douglas Haselow, a lobbyist for the school system.

Moreover, he noted, the schools are still required to staff for every child enrolled, regardless of whether they come to school on a regular basis.

Some Milwaukee principals also point out that they are under greater pressure to produce “warm bodies” because school opens one week later in the city than it does in other parts of the state.

“Other districts have a good solid week longer to round up other students who might be attending school but haven’t shown up yet,” said Dennis Schumacher, the principal of Parkman.

Mr. Schumacher began warning students about enrollment “D-Day” a week in advance, holding out the prospect of a stock of prizes donated by local merchants. But, despite his efforts, 23 new students--enough for an entire class--have enrolled in his school since the Sept. 15 attendance count was taken.

“And I’m not assured of getting another teacher,” he said.

Mr. Parkman and other principals said Mr. Grover may be misinterpreting their efforts to coax students to school. Good attendance, they said, is also a priority for them throughout the school year.

“I think my enrollment figures are pretty accurate from the standpoint that I would say that my enrollment would be the same or greater on the last day of school,” said Robert Kreilkamp, principal of Oliver Wendell Holmes.

A version of this article appeared in the October 25, 1989 edition of Education Week as Wisconsin Chief Seeking End to Attendance ‘Dishonesty’