Like most states, Arizona felt a financial crunch in the wake of the economic downturn of 2008. As a result, funding for education could not keep pace with the expected increases. An Arizona judge recently ruled that state lawmakers did not fund schools properly during this time and must appropriate an additional $317 million to Arizona public schools, immediately.
However, as Jonathan Butcher of the Goldwater Institute points out, much less money would be needed if “ghost students” were removed from the funding formula. A ghost student is essentially when the state pays for the same student twice.
In The Arizona Republic he writes:
“Arizona schools can apply for additional funding for current-year enrollment growth, but they do not have to adjust for enrollment decreases in the same year. Traditional school payments are generally not updated until the following year, which means schools get funding for students who aren’t in their classrooms anymore.
“As Goldwater Institute research has reported, the state pays about $125 million for empty seats every year.
“Traditional school payments should be based on the number of students in the classroom, with payments updated accordingly throughout the year.”
In Missouri, we often hear that the state’s foundation formula for education is not fully funded. That is true, but Missouri’s formula is riddled with the same features that create ghost students in Arizona. Schools are funded based on the number of students from the current or two previous years. Thus, a district with declining enrollment could get funded based on their enrollment from two years ago, while a district with increasing enrollment gets funded based on the current year’s student count.
In addition, there are several other features that do not allow a district’s funding to decrease when it should. For instance, the amount counted as “local dollars” is pegged to 2004 assessment levels. If local property taxes increase, the state should pay less to the school district, but they don’t. On top of all of this, Missouri has a “hold-harmless” provision that prevents state funding from decreasing below a set level, even if the district should receive less based on the formula. As of 2013, there were 174 hold-harmless districts.
If Missouri were to remove these provisions it would allow the formula to adjust to the changing demographics of our schools. Then the formula would not be as dramatically underfunded as is claimed. This would be a wise step, because we simply cannot afford to continue to fund ghost students.
For more on the funding formula, check out our handy primer.