Formerly First in the Nation: Part 2 – a pupil isn’t always a student

HomeworkBy Bob Eschliman


When the average Iowan hears terms like “enrollment-based funding,” and “making sure the dollars follow the student,” it’s easy to assume every student in Iowa is counted equally when it comes to state funding.

While it makes sense, it’s far from the truth. In fact, very few school districts provide certified enrollment figures to the Iowa Department of Education that are even close to the exact head counts of their student populations.

Here’s how a student isn’t really a student in the eyes of the Iowa General Assembly:

  • every resident student counts as 1.0 equivalent pupil,
  • however, shared-time students – those who spend a portion of their time in a local school district and the rest in another non-public school system are assigned an equivalent student amount based on their full-time equivalency, and
  • students with “substantial education needs” receive “weighting” – an additional fraction of an equivalent pupil – to offset the added expense of their education.

The certified enrollment census is taken on Oct. 1 of each year and is used to determine the funding of the next fiscal year. For instance, the current fiscal year’s certified enrollment was established on Oct. 1, 2013.

Click to enlarge (Source: LSA)

Click to enlarge (Source: LSA)

At that time, there were:

  • 443,927 resident students, which includes dual enrolled homeschool students and those who take part in the Home School Assistance Program,
  • 28,632 open enrollment students,
  • 5,881 tuition-out students,
  • 209 “shared time” students, and
  • 272 homeschool students who receive competent private instruction.

The weightings used to offset added educational expenses of certain school districts that go beyond the cost of regular education add equivalent pupils to each school district’s certified enrollment. The vast majority of weightings in FY 2014 were applied to special education needs.

Special education accounts for 62,415.98 equivalent pupils of the 74,450.67 total additional equivalent pupils created by weighting. Those are “students” that only exist as a funding mechanism for the added educational expenses of special education students in the state.

The remaining 12,000 equivalent pupils are created through “supplemental weighting,” which covers the following categories:

  • shared students,
  • students of shared teachers,
  • students who take community college courses,
  • students who are part of a whole grade sharing agreement,
  • students who take part in regional academies,
  • students who take classes via the Iowa Communications Network,
  • operational functions,
  • at-risk students,
  • English Language Learner students,
  • students subject to reorganization, and
  • students impacted by AEA resources sharing.

Certified enrollment data is later plugged into the “state funding formula,” which is based on the state percentage of growth established by the Iowa General Assembly. For instance, the Fiscal Year 2014 state cost per equivalent pupil was $6,121 and the General Assembly approved in 2013 a 4-percent state growth for FY 2015.

Doing the math, you get:


$6,121 x 4% (0.04) = $245 per equivalent pupil increase


So, the FY 2015 – the current school year – state cost per equivalent pupil was $6,366. That amount is then used to calculate the state cost for the next fiscal year, and so on.

The state cost per pupil is also the minimum amount the district may budget to spend – called the “minimum district cost” – per equivalent pupil. The state cost is also used to factor in the nine other “cost per pupil” amounts in the school aid formula.

And while we talk about the minimum district cost, the range from highest cost to lowest cost per pupil is very small, less than $200 per equivalent pupil, or about 2.7 percentage points. For FY 2015, they ranged from $6,366 – the statutory minimum, charged by 165 of the state’s 346 districts – to $6,541, which is charged by only seven districts in the state.

Categorical supplements – we’ll talk more about those later – are included in the state funding formula, but are not included in the district cost per equivalent pupil.

While the state percentage of growth has never exceeded 4 percent – it has only been as low as 1 percent twice: 2003, when it was 1 percent, and in 2012 when it defaulted at zero percent – it has meant the amount of spending on education has generally increased ahead of inflation over the past 20 years. The state cost per pupil has steadily increased from $3,406 per equivalent pupil in FY 1994 to $6,366 in FY 2015.


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As a result, school funding isn’t really enrollment-based in Iowa anymore, but instead based on student demographics. School districts with greater student diversity, particularly those with students who have greater educational needs, may receive more state funding.

Then again, school districts with more property valuation benefit even more. That will be the subject of our next installment.