Missouri’s Ghost Students
Imagine that your taxable income on your annual income tax return wasn’t how much you earned last year, but the lowest amount that you earned in any of the last four years, even if you were unemployed for one of them. You could just keep rolling out that really low earning year for several years. That scenario is what actually happens with Missouri’s funding for public education.
The foundation formula—which is used to equalize public education dollars between property-rich and property-poor school districts—is based on the highest student attendance number in any of the last four years. It has always been the case that Missouri districts can pick the highest of any of the last three years to use as their average daily attendance (ADA), but the law was adjusted during COVID to allow districts to use any of the last four.
Here’s what puzzles me—this is still happening. According to instructions from the Department of Elementary and Secondary Education (DESE), in FY 2022 student attendance was “broadly impacted” by the Delta and Omicron variants and therefore, for FY 2024, districts can still use the highest attendance of the four previous years. Isn’t it time to stop leaning on COVID?
But here’s what this means in reality. Let’s take the district Fort Zumwalt district as an example. In 2021, it received an average of about $3,000 in foundation formula money per student. Even though its ADA in 2022 was 15,971, Fort Zumwalt gets to use its 2019 ADA of 16,856 for four years, giving it almost 900 ghost students to use in the formula. Moreover, its ADA has steadily declined from over 17,200 students in 2015 to just under 16,000 in 2022—this decline started before the pandemic. Statewide, using the maximum ADA for the past four years for all school districts results in a total of 65,500 ghost kids. Using the foundation formula’s per-student State Adequacy Target amount (the minimum amount the state says each student should receive in state funding) of $6,375 results in over $415 million in funding for students who used to be in attendance.
We know that kids have been on the move since the pandemic. Homeschool numbers have skyrocketed. Private schools have enrolled public school switchers. Some students may have decided that virtual schooling worked well for them, and some parents have gotten together to start their own schools. Public funding for education can easily keep up. We should be funding students where they are, not where they used to be.