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Paying for imaginary students

Paying for imaginary students

Mitch Coffman
July 6, 2010

Everyone’s heard of government programs paying farmers not to farm and rewarding dairy producers for pouring milk down the drain. Not as well-known, however, is the law requiring Idahoans to pay for students who don’t exist.

The state of Idaho calculates its portion of K-12 public education funding based in part upon “average daily attendance” or ADA. This policy is designed to prevent spending money on students who are enrolled but not attending. However, Idaho Code section 33-1003 mandates payment for students who aren’t even enrolled:

[For] Any school district which has a decrease in total average daily attendance of one percent (1%) of its average daily attendance in the then current school year from the total average daily attendance used for determining the allowance in the educational support program for the school year immediately preceding, the allowance of funds from the educational support program may be based on the average daily attendance of the school year immediately preceding, less one percent (1%).

In plain English? If a school district’s number of students drops one percent or more from last year, the district may choose to take last year’s state funding less one percent – or 99 percent of last year’s funding – instead of the lower funding it would be entitled to with this year’s lower number of students.

For example, the Gooding Joint School District with its three schools had an ADA of 1221 students in the 2007-2008 school year. Its ADA for 2008-2009 was 1092, meaning the district lost 11 percent of its students between school years. Gooding School District asked for and received 99 percent of its 2007-2008 state entitlement instead of funding based upon its actual 2008-2009 ADA.

Not every pupil is worth the same amount of money to a district. A kindergartener is not entitled to the same money as a high school senior or a special education student. It is impossible to know who missing students would have been.

Nevertheless, roughly speaking the Gooding Joint School District was funded like it had an ADA of 1209 (99 percent of 1221) rather than being funded according to its actual ADA of 1092 – a difference of 117. As the Gooding Joint School District lost students, the North Valley Academy Charter School, also in Gooding, opened for the 2008-2009 school year with an ADA of 156.

Therefore in 2008-2009 the Idaho taxpayer paid for the 156 students attending one Gooding public school plus 1092 students attending three other Gooding public schools . . . plus approximately 117 public school students who didn’t exist.

Behind this policy is the idea a district losing a large number of students needs a school year to adjust to its new fiscal reality. A district’s largest expense, the teachers’ collective bargaining agreement, is set months or even years before anyone knows how many students a district will actually serve. At the price of paying for ghost students, Idahoans give school districts a year to work things out with their teachers’ unions.

In a bygone time when nearly all K-12 students enrolled in their neighborhood public schools, this funding mechanism was not too onerous. Now, students are more mobile and the demand for school choice is large. With approximately 12,000 Idaho students enrolled in public charter schools and more than 7,000 waiting to get in, subsidizing the status quo allows school choice opponents to falsely claim “we can’t afford charter schools.” Further, there’s a growing sector of full-time virtual students who rarely, if ever, “attend” class at all.

Why do we continue to fund schools according to geography and attendance? Why not according to educational outcomes? It’s an idea that makes at least as much sense as paying for students who aren't there.

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