U.Va. Demographers Find Unequal Public School Funding Due to Triennial Census Inaccuracies

November 24, 2008 — A first-time study by demographers at the University of Virginia's Weldon Cooper Center for Public Service finds that some tax allocations to local school divisions may be unfair because school divisions don't always count their school-age residents accurately.

Under Virginia law, 1.125 percent of the commonwealth's annual sales and tax receipts — an estimated $1.2 billion in 2009 — are returned to localities for use in public education. The money is distributed according to the local count of school-age children reported by school divisions once every three years in Virginia's triennial census.

"We undertook this study because, as professional demographers, we know that conducting a census is an extremely complex and demanding process, requiring significant expertise and resources," said Qian Cai, director of Demographics and Workforce for the Cooper Center. "We work for years in advance of each decennial census to help the United States Census Bureau conduct the federal census, and we wondered how school divisions, in all fairness, could do this job well."

The Cooper Center study examined the way the triennial census is conducted and found that methods vary widely among the localities, and that the costs for conducting it, which are borne by the localities, are substantial — more than $5 million when last calculated in 1995.

School divisions' different approaches to the census result in counts of school-age children ranging from accurate to widely inaccurate due to either under- or over-counting the school-age population, resulting in unfair allocations of funds.

According to Susan Perrone, who conducted the study, as much as $17 million may have been misallocated among the school divisions in 2007.

"By comparing our population estimates with the counts reported by the school divisions, we found that four school divisions counted accurately, 27 reported too many children (and thus got too much money) and 67 reported too few children (getting too little money)," Perrone said. "Martinsville reported 575 more children than we would have expected, and Portsmouth reported 5,072 too few. As a result of under- and over-counting across the state, the amount allocated ranged from $582 to $928 per child.”

The preliminary report, which includes data on 98 localities has been circulated among local government officials and leaders in the state's public school systems and was presented in October to the education subcommittee of the Senate Finance Committee. The Cooper Center plans to send it to all members of the General Assembly.

The report, issued Oct. 16, is available on the Weldon Cooper Center Web site.