Funding ‘phantom students’

Many states fund phantom students, sucking up education dollars and reducing districts’ incentive to improve productivity, according to an Education Next article by Marguerite Roza, who runs the Edunomics Lab at Georgetown and Jon Fullerton, executive director of Harvard’s Center for Education Policy Research.

Declining enrollment — especially if it’s caused by charter competition — is a primary cause of phantom funding. The students are gone, but the dollars remain.

During charter negotiations, many states promised school districts they’d be protected financially if students left for charter schools. “Double funding” can be costly.

In Connecticut, districts receive revenues based on the enrollments of students living in their region, regardless of whether those students attend the district schools or attend charters (or technical schools).

. . . In Massachusetts, charter school students take with them the per-pupil net school spending (state and local) from their sending districts. To soften the blow to sending-district finances, Massachusetts provides a partial tuition reimbursement for up to six years after the district starts paying charter school tuition. When a district incurs new tuition costs, the state reimburses the district for 100 percent of the cost in the first year and 25 percent of the tuition cost for the next five years. Thus, the state essentially provides districts with 225 percent of a year’s tuition for each full-time equivalent student lost!

There’s little “incentive to improve services in an effort to retain more students,” they conclude. “When students leave a district to attend a charter school, the district may see an increase in per-student revenues.”

Some states also subsidize small districts. California is very generous to small districts, undercutting any incentive to merge for greater efficiency.

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  1. momof4 says:

    The other group of phantom students is the one who is present (and I’m betting this is very loosely defined) on the day(s) that official enrollment is determined, but may soon drop out. This is especially likely in HS, which also has many “dropouts in place”; kids who aren’t interested, won’t put in any effort, and are likely far behind “grade level” but who are kept in place by mandatory attendance laws. Such kids are also likely to be disciplinary problems and are more expensive to “educate” than the norm.

    I am sympathetic to the push to consolidate very small schools, begun in my NE state by the early 60s, but geography does impose limits. Many schools in the SW, Great Plains and Northern Plains states are not only very small but are also isolated; hampering consolidation.

    • gahrie says:

      I currently have three (I had four, but one finally dropped out last week) students in my first period class who are seniors who have been officially informed by the school that they have no chance of graduating. These kids show up every day, usually late, and make no attempt to do any work all day. They basically hang out and socialize with their friends. If they are absent, the school calls and harasses them and their families. The school wants their attendence money.

    • Yeah, but the group of phantom students this article’s about are a window into the politics of public education which puts the lie to the complaints of the proponents of district-based public education.

      Districts cry “poverty” while doing quite well for each student a charter gets. Ideally all the students could be packed off to charters provided the stream of funding wasn’t interrupted by the fact that the district was no longer in the business of educating kids.

      But that’d be in a perfect world.

      • Yes, this is a fine illustration of the power of teachers’ unions and the Democratic politicians they own; insulating public schools from the natural consequences of their decisions and actions.