High School Students Get Swag on Count Day

Several districts woo students with pizza and prizes to boost enrollment on count day.

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Ten states use attendance counts from a single day to determine district funding for the school year.
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Once a year, Detroit Public Schools pulls out all the stops to get students in their seats.

In 2010, the district enticed students with a total of $20,000 in Target gift cards. The prize for attendance in 2009: a shot to win a laptop, iPod, or 42-inch flat screen TV.

This year, every Detroit public high school student who shows up to school on Oct. 3 will be rewarded with a free pair of Nikes, courtesy of a local shoe store.

The reason for all the swag: Count Day. The number of students in attendance for the entirety of count day in the fall determines 90 percent of per-pupil state funding for Michigan public school districts. The other 10 percent is determined by a second count day in the winter.

"Count information is critical to districts, because each student translates into state funding," according to the Michigan Department of Education.

Per-pupil funding varies by district in Michigan, with a minimum payout of close to $7,000 per student, and schools across the state woo students with pizza parties, raffles, and giveaways to ensure they max out their state funding.

Basing school funding on attendance numbers from only one or two days out of the school year provides funding stability for districts, but it can also "create perverse financial incentives … to not retain students after the count date," according to a March 2012 report by the Center for Evaluation and Education Policy at Indiana University—Bloomington.

Count Days are not exclusive to Michigan. At least 10 states determine school funding using a single count day—including Colorado, Connecticut, Nevada, and Iowa. Several other states mimic Michigan's practice of multiple Count Days, but for many of those states, that only amounts to two days, the CEEP report states.

Using incentives to bump enrollment on Count Days is not exclusive to Michigan, either.

In 2011, the Maya Angelou Public Charter School in Washington, D.C., raffled off a shopping spree in an effort to reach its goal of 100 percent attendance on Count Day. And Northeast Academy Charter School in Denver turned to gift cards in 2010 to attract new students prior to Count Day, according to a local CBS station.

Northeast Academy's move was effective. The school enrolled at least 10 new students, thus increasing its state funding, the station reported.

"[It is]more efficient. It means more income, same expenses," Joseph Arlinghaus, director of advancement at the academy, told the TV station.

That mentality is just one of the concerns critics have about Count Day.

Measuring average daily attendance for the school year or taking student counts over an extended time period gives states a more accurate portrayal of the funding needed in each district, experts say.

That reasoning prompted New Jersey to move away from a system of using a single Count Day this year, with Governor Chris Christie's office calling it a "common sense" move.

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