Skipping School Costs San Diego Districts More Than $100 Million
Ditching school can hurt a student's grades, get them in trouble and lead to bigger behavioral problems. But in California, cutting classes at public school can also cost that school a bundle and effect the education of all the students. An investigation by KPBS and the Watchdog Institute has waded through the morass of complex education funding formulas to uncover just how much truancy is costing San Diego school districts.
KPBS reporter Joanne Faryon
This is a rush transcript created by a contractor for KPBS to improve accessibility for the deaf and hard-of-hearing. Please refer to the media file as the formal record of this interview. Opinions expressed by guests during interviews reflect the guest’s individual views and do not necessarily represent those of KPBS staff, members or its sponsors.
CAVANAUGH: KPBS investigates the high cost of staying home from school. San Diego's dark corners and lost dreams exposed in a new book of short stories. This is KPBS Midday Edition. I'm Maureen Cavanaugh. It's Monday, June†27th. Later this hour, the promise of iPads and other tablet applications are the talk off USD's summer autism conference. And we'll hear how a group of local authors dove into San Diego Noir.
But first we know that ditching school can hurt a student's grades, get them in trouble and lead to bigger behavioral problems. But in California, cutting classes at public school can also cost that school a bundle and affect the education of all the students. An investigation by KPBS and the watch dog institute has waded through the morass of complex education funding formulas to uncover just how much absenteeism is costing San Diego school districts. Joining me, KPBS reporter Joanne Faryon.
FARYON: Hi, Maureen.
CAVANAUGH: I want to let everyone know Joanne worked with reporters at the Watch Dog Institute, an investigative reporting nonprofit based at SDSU. How big a problem is chronic absenteeism in San Diego schools?
FARYON: San Diego County has 42 school district, San Diego Unified is the largest. In one year, last school year, that district alone had about 10,000 students who were chronically students. 10,000. And chronically absent means those kids missed ten†percent or more of their enroll days for any reason. So even if they were sick or they had a doctor's appointment, whatever, or just skipped class, it was 10,000 kids missing ten†percent or more. And that's just from one school district. We obtained information from all 42 -- not all 42, a large number of the 42 school districts saw a number of districts who keep these lists of chronically absent kids, kids who miss 50†days, 60†days, 80†days of school, and I'll remind the audience that the school year is 1180s long. So quite literally half a school year.
CAVANAUGH: We hear of absenteeism in terms of how it affects the student, how it affects the larger community if kids are hanging out and misbehaving somewhere instead of being in schools. What you focused on is actually what it costs the district for a student to be absent. Why does the student being absent cost the district in the first place?
FARYON: I have to tell you, this surprised me too. It was about six months ago that my son came home from his middle school and said, they post a list in our office of how much money our school loses every week because kids are away. This is what my 13-year-old son and his friends were talking about. The way kids are funded here, the way school districts are funded, each student is basically worth a certain amount of money if that student goes to school for 180 school days. On average, it's between 5 and $6,000 per student. It depends on what district. Let's say my son, if he were to go to school a hundred and 80 -- all the time, perfect attendance, he'd be worth about $5,200 to his district. For every day that he miss, literally the district gets deducted. It's about $30 in his district per day that he's not there. What we did is looked at -- when you multiply this for every kid who misses every day across the county, what happens? In total, school districts? San Diego are losing more than a hundred million dollars. Lost year they lost a hundred and $2†million based on this formula. Why? We did some research across the country. What we learned is that across the country you have to be enrollment or attendance -- it's somehow used in funding formulas. You have to count your school population. How do you know how many teachers, books are etc, unless you know how much you have? Student population is always in the formula. In terms of how that school population gets factored in, that's what changes. Many states just say how many kids are enrolled. They just pick enrollment on a particular day, some day in September, October, and multiply it out. So those districts aren't losing based on attendance. Some states measure attendance in a different way. They average out attendance. Let's say 2 or 3†days a year, they might say this is how many kids we had on that day, and their funding formula is based on that. A smaller number of states, California among them, says we're going to measure attendance all the time and have this very complicated formula that deducts for every day a kid misses school. And that's what we ended up with. It wasn't always this way. In 1998, the law was changed in California. Schools used to be funded for excused absences. So if the kid is sick or whatever, they still got their money. But the law changed. We looked at some hearing committee meeting minutes and they said that basically this was being abused, schools weren't really tracking down the excused absences like students were writing their own notes, etc. So on this was supposed to be an incentive to say get your kids to class. Make sure kids are in class learning or you won't get your money.
CAVANAUGH: I'm speaking with KPBS reporter Joanne Faryon. We're talking about the investigative report she conducted with the Watch Dog Institute about how absenteeism impacts the amount of money San Diego schools are receiving. It's about a hundred and $2†million a year. How difficult was it to do the math on this?
FARYON: We should be asking Kevin Crowe. He's an investigative reporter with the Watch Dog Institute. And we sort of paired up and said, how are we gonna tackle this? This was six months ago. It's really a complicated formula that again, Kevin gets all the credit. We went to the county department of ed, and said we want to find out school by school. We know that there have been some research done out there in terms of district by district. But school by school, how can we determine what every school potentially loses because of this? So with their help, Kevin came up with a formula. We then had to request this information from every 62 will in the county via their district, and filed public act request it is with all of them. Once they started coming in, you had to make sure you had consistent numbers. Kevin started basically using the formula, plotting them all on a map. He created this amazing map. You can go to our web indicate, KPBS.org or washdoginstitute.org, and you can go onto this map and find your school, what your school is losing, even what their losing per student. It was a lot of work, and I think finding -- we wanted to make sure we were comparing the same thing. Every school and school district giving us the same number so that we could compare apples to apples.
CAVANAUGH: I understand. Do you know why so many kids are missing school? Do the schools know why? Since it is their incentive to get those kids in the seats each day, did they tell you about why there is this chronic absenteeism?
FARYON: We don't know. First let me tell you the difference between truancy and absenteeism. It helps talk a little bit about the why. So now, we seem to use those words interchangeably. But truancy is a legal definition in California. And that means that a student has missed three days or more without an excuse. It's not an excused absence. They're declared truant. Being chronically absent doesn't necessarily mean you're truant. Maybe you've missed 30†days. But maybe your parent has excused it for whatever reason. You even went on an extended vacation. Or whatever it is your parent has an excuse for you. In our data, we weren't able to necessarily distinguish what those reasons were. And in fact we didn't distinguish between chronically absent and truancy, although San Diego Unified did provide that separately. They had more than a thousand kids last year who were chronically truant as opposed to 10,000 who were chronically absent. We did do some other stories. This is part of a whole series of education funding that KPBS and the Watch Dog Institute has been looking at. A few months ago, we produced a documentary on Lincoln high school. We went there because out of the high schools in San Diego Unified, they have one of the lowest -- or highest absentee rates. We wanted to find out why. We met with a couple of women who are part of an intervention team who go out into the home to find out why kids are missing school. Before I met these women, I thought I'm gonna go out with these truant officers, I thought that's what they were. And we're gonna find kids sleeping in and hanging out at 711, and they're gonna round them off to school. I cooperate have been more wrong. I meet with them, and they started telling me the stories of why kids weren't coming to their school. There was a boy who had to ride the bus with his dad three days a week to take him to dialysis. There was a young girl whose family quite literally had no food one weekend. It was story after story of really hardship there were many stories of kids who couldn't afford bus fair. They lived two miles away and they couldn't get there. Or it wasn't safe. It was shocking and eye opening. I can tell you that it's not always what we think. For some kids who miss 50 or 60†days, what some of these schools find, there are underlying reasons, social reason, economic reasons of why kids aren't there.
CAVANAUGH: And interestingly in comparison, in conjunction with what you just said, I think there's something in your story about how affluent and poorer schools are affected differently by these absentee reductions.
FARYON: That was one of the questions we wanted to ask our data. If we looked at schools, we looked at high schools based on their free and reduced lunch participation. If you're a family that lives at around the poverty line, it's slightly higher, your kids are eligible to get free lunch at school or lunch at a reduced price for maybe a buck a lunch. We looked at those rates at the high schools in the county and compared them with the attendance rates and did find a correlation between high schools that had a higher rate of the free and reduced lunch participation, meant there was more poverty in the school, and a lower attendance rate. That's what you find at Lincoln which had one of the higher absentee rates. Also at Hoover. Their free and reduced lunch participation rate was 96†percent. And they also lost the most money in terms of their attendance.
CAVANAUGH: It sounds as if a lot of county officials aren't happy with the way the funding is going based on absenteeism. Is there any idea of changing this? How could California change this so the schools weren't penalized that had high absentee rates?
FARYON: At first I thought when we called all of the school officials, they'd all be outraged. Oh, yeah, this is a horrible system, it's terrible. Very few people said it's a bad system. What they said is this is the system we've always lived with. It didn't occur to us. We just have to focus on getting kids in class. This is our system. Some people said, if they change the formula, it doesn't change how much money they're giving to schools. The bottom line is you have a funding pie. It's only so big. Whether you change the formula or divide it differently, we're still only gonna get that much money. We had a few officials say, no, this does have to change because again my school is more negatively affected for various reasons. And finally Kevin interviewed assembly woman Julia brownly, and she has introduced legislation that would change the funding formula entirely. She told Kevin, I don't like this at all but we don't have enough money to fix it. Imagine if every school got a hundred percent of their intended funding and these amounts were not subtracted, you'd end up hundreds of millions more in funding that the school was obligated to pay all school districts.
CAVANAUGH: I have been speaking with KPBS reporter Joanne Faryon. The second part of your investigative report is gonna be on the air tomorrow during morning edition.
FARYON: There are school districts in our county who don't lose a penny for attendance, and you'll hear about that tomorrow.
CAVANAUGH: And you can check out that map at kpbs.org. Thanks Joanne.
FARYON: Thanks Maureen.