Budget & Finance

Why Chronic Absenteeism Is a Budget Problem, Too

By Mark Lieberman — May 13, 2024 7 min read
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Chronic absenteeism skyrocketed during the pandemic, creating headaches for teachers and school administrators eager to bring students back to regular classroom routines.

But for many schools, chronic absenteeism is a source of financial strain as well.

For schools in six states, which collectively enroll more than 13 million of the nation’s 50 million public school students, lower attendance translates to less funding from the state.

One of those states, Mississippi, earlier this month approved a new funding formula that will no longer calculate funding based on attendance.

But the remaining five—California, Idaho, Kentucky, Missouri, and Texas—have no such changes on the horizon.

In fact, some states are doubling down on attendance-based funding. Idaho, for instance, recently returned to that model after giving districts a reprieve from it during the height of the pandemic, costing schools a projected $162 million in the process. And Michigan has maintained its policy of docking state funds from districts anytime their overall daily attendance dips below 75 percent of enrolled students.

Districts and states are also investing thousands of dollars in efforts to find chronically absent students, or to hire firms to do that work for them, creating another cost. Last summer, the Wichita, Kan., school district invested $70,000 in Title I funds to hire an outside company, EveryDay Labs, to help reduce the district’s rate of chronically absent students, which at that time was close to 50 percent.

Beyond the immediate fiscal impacts, students who are chronically absent are likely to struggle academically, which means schools need more resources to serve them. And schools with a large number of chronically absent students may have lower test scores that dent the district’s reputation and discourage families from enrolling in the future.

All these issues are arising at the same time as many districts across the country are already experiencing a downward trend in enrollment, brought on largely by lower birthrates as well as growing interest in private and homeschool options, and a phenomenon of thousands of missing children that is still puzzling researchers.

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“Districts are experiencing a double hit when they do their projections because they’re having to project fewer students and higher absences among students that do come,” said Carrie Hahnel, a senior associate partner at the research and advocacy nonprofit Bellwether, who has conducted extensive analysis of attendance-based funding policies. “It’s just compounding the pressures they’re facing.”

Schools face a variety of funding challenges when students don’t show up

Most states allocate funds to districts each year based on the number of enrolled students.

But roughly 10 percent of states, including the two largest, use a different metric: average daily attendance. Typically, states calculate the number of days students were present during the school year, and divide that by the number of days.

More than 1 in 4 students nationwide were chronically absent—missing at least 10 percent of school days—during the 2021-22 and 2022-23 school years. Those figures represented a marked increase over pre-pandemic levels.

Even small drops in absenteeism in a state that distributes school aid based in part on attendance rather than enrollment can make a big difference for school budgets. The Keller district in Texas loses $2.4 million for each percentage-point decrease in average daily attendance, Cory Wilson, the district’s area superintendent of educational support, told the Keller school board earlier this year. That’s $70 for each of the district’s 34,000 students.

Chronic absenteeism is causing financial headaches for districts even in states where attendance numbers don’t determine funding.

The Peabody district in Massachusetts serves 6,000 students in 10 schools. More than half are students of color.

During the 2021-22 school year, 46 percent of Peabody students missed more than 10 percent of school days. As the acute effects of the pandemic receded, that percentage dropped to 31 percent the following year, and so far this school year, it’s dropped again to 22 percent.

Even with the year-over-year improvements, those numbers worry Sam Rippin, the district’s business manager.

He’s observed a substantial increase in the number of students who require costly remediation and special education services. He believes some of those referrals stem from persistent absenteeism.

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Peabody is also spending money to address its chronic-absenteeism problem. The district hired a former high school principal to serve as a reengagement coordinator to visit families’ homes and help students get reacquainted with attending school regularly. He’ll earn $60,000 over six months—$10,000 from a state grant and the remainder from federal COVID-relief dollars, which expire later this year.

“We were just lucky,” Rippin said. “It’s worked for us so far.”

South Dakota also offered grants for districts to spend on efforts to reduce chronic absenteeism. The state offered those funds from its allocation of federal Bipartisan Safer Communities Act dollars, which Congress approved to help districts improve security in the wake of the fatal mass shooting in Uvalde, Texas.

Administrators in the 200-student Leola district in South Dakota began investing in Positive Behavioral Interventions and Supports, or PBIS, as chronic absenteeism grew during the pandemic. PBIS involves identifying students at high risk of failing or dropping out and developing systems to support them.

Without additional funds, the small district could only do so much with PBIS, though. With a nearly $200,000 grant from the state, the district hired a full-time employee who works with students on credit recovery and develops programming to help reduce absenteeism, said Leah DeMent, a school counselor for the district who wrote the grant application.

The grant also helped pay for three staff members to participate in a “check and connect” mentoring program that pairs adults with students to help them return to regularly attending school, DeMent said.

Efforts like those can be powerful tools in the fight against chronic absenteeism, said Sarah Lenhoff, an associate professor of educational leadership and policy studies at Wayne State University who has conducted extensive research on chronic absenteeism. But they take time, effort, and money.

By contrast, research shows that lower-lift approaches like luring students to school with pizza parties don’t tend to work well, Lenhoff said.

“A lot of the things schools are able to do with their limited funds are these low-cost things that don’t have a strong evidence base,” Lenhoff said. “The things that have some emerging evidence that they work are extremely expensive.”

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Getting students back on track is no small feat

A growing body of research shows that chronic absenteeism often stems from challenges students and families face that the school district can’t control, such as difficulty accessing transportation and child care. But schools are still expected, and often obligated, to contribute to solutions.

Failing to do so can be costly for districts. An obscure policy in Michigan, for instance, requires districts to add a day to the school calendar for every day in which fewer than 75 percent of their students show up to school. If they don’t add a day, the state docks an amount of state aid proportional to the amount by which attendance fell short of 75 percent.

Lenhoff said districts like Detroit that fear dipping below that 75 percent threshold sometimes proactively close schools when they anticipate high absenteeism—around holidays or when temperatures are very high or very low, for example.

“It really comes down to giving districts that are serving more children in poverty less money to serve them,” she said.

Punishing districts where students are chronically absent only makes the problem more likely to recur, Lenhoff said. Instead, she’d prefer to see states require districts to allocate a certain amount toward evidence-based programs that address chronic absenteeism.

That approach would improve upon existing state policies that aim to discourage chronic absenteeism but might end up exacerbating it, said Ericka Weathers, an assistant professor of education policy at the University of Pennsylvania.

Some states have truancy laws that require that students be suspended or that parents go to court or even jail if their children don’t show up to school. Taking children away from school, or taking away the option for parents to take their children to school, could end up costing the district in future years.

“If money’s taken away because kids are absent, it’s leaving less money to tackle the problems in a more restorative, preventative, and less reactive approach,” Weathers said.

The efforts backed by evidence can take time, and they’re likely to remain necessary. In California, chronic absenteeism is particularly high among younger students, researchers have found. Younger students who are chronically absent tend to continue to be chronically absent later in their K-12 careers.

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During her research, Lenhoff has observed district workers who are able to make progress on two or three chronically absent students a day—helping families with day care, transportation, and other logistical concerns outside a school’s traditional purview.

“They’re working really hard to get to the bottom of these issues,” Lenhoff said. “That’s not a one-day job.”

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