Connecticut is spending millions on so-called “phantom students” because it pays for some students twice – a practice that would end if the state instead “followed the child” with its education dollars.

School districts are paid based on the number of school-aged children who live within their boundaries, so even if students travel outside a district or go to a charter or private school districts are still paid to educate them.

Because the state picks up much of the tab for education in some cities, the cost of double-funding students is high. Researchers estimate that it costs the state close to $190 million a year.

The study was in Education Next, a journal published by the Program on Education Policy and Governance at Harvard University. It also explains why double-funding students isn’t just a financial problem.

“An obvious downside is that these policies cause less funding to be available for all other districts,” say authors Marguerite Roza and Jon Fullerton. “But such allocations also insulate district leaders from having to make tough (and often productivity-enhancing) changes in the way they serve the students they have. Policies intended to protect districts weaken the incentives that should drive change and adaptation as enrollments fluctuate.”

The Education Next study used figures from a ConnCan study published in 2009 called The Tab. Since then, many more students have enrolled in non-traditional schools, but the practice of paying districts twice continues.

For example, according to State Department of Education statistics, 4,703 Hartford children attended either a charter school or a school in another district in 2011, but Hartford was still paid for those children by the state.

At about $10,000 per child, that’s an extra $47 million on “phantom students.”

In Bridgeport, with 3,077 students outside the district and the state paying the district $8,500 per child, the state gave Bridgeport an extra $26 million. In 2011 in New Haven there were 2,807 students attending outside the district, and the state gave the district $9,200 per child, adding another $26 million.

Despite spending more money on education, the state has not seen a significant improvement in achievement. While spending on education has grown significantly over the past few years, student achievement nudged up only slightly in some areas, and has decreased in others.

From 2003 to 2011 (the last year official census data are available):

  • Spending on education per child in the state went from $10,788 to $15,600, a 45 percent increase.
  • Total spending – from local, state and federal sources – on Connecticut’s schoolchildren went from $7.15 billion to $9.6 billion.
  • The number of school-aged children shrank from 577,403 to 530,132.
  • State government spending on education grew from $2.52 billion in 2003 to $3.6 billion in 2009 then shrank back down to $3.2 billion by 2011.
  • While spending went up 35 percent from 2003-2009, student achievement remained almost flat – test scores increased by only 1 percent.

The state has a complicated system of giving money to school districts, which are paid through “cost-sharing grants.” As is often the case, complicated funding systems lead to less transparency.

As noted in a ConnCan study, the ECS funding formula is complicated because it uses so many factors – and because it is so complicated it is easier to manipulate.

A simplified “follow the child” method for funding education, where students are assigned a certain amount per year for their education and that amount is paid to the school they choose to attend, would make things much clearer.

But calls for using this method have largely been ignored, primarily because it is so politically difficult to reduce spending on education, or even to reallocate resources. The state instead has chosen the politically easy route – to “hold harmless” districts whose enrollment numbers shrink as students move to non-traditional schools.

This policy creates strange incentives for school districts – if children choose to go to school outside the district it means there is more money for a smaller number of students in the district. What incentive is there to build schools that would bring children flooding back?

Follow the child funding does not have to mean all students are assigned the same amount for their education. Not every child has the same advantages outside the classroom, and per student funding can reflect this reality. Children who are poor or who have special needs can receive higher amounts through a weighted funding system. This stops districts from trying to jettison children with the highest needs.