Pickering says school funding data unreliable

By Jeff Amy/The Associated Press

JACKSON, Miss. (AP) — Mississippi Auditor Stacey Pickering is calling on lawmakers to write new, stricter rules on computing how much state money goes to schools.

The Republican told the House Appropriations Committee Tuesday that he can’t verify the accuracy of the Mississippi Adequate Education Program formula, as required by law, because his office believes numbers on attendance, students receiving free lunch and other items are inaccurate and can’t effectively audit them.

House Appropriations Committee Chairman Herb Frierson, R-Poplarville, said he’d like to refine attendance estimates by law. But House Speaker Philip Gunn, R-Clinton, has said he’s not interested in modifying MAEP this year.

The state is spending $2.04 billion for MAEP this year. Full funding of the formula would require $2.36 billion in 2013-2014. But Pickering wrote in a September letter to Gov. Phil Bryant and legislative leaders that he would be unable to certify the validity of that estimate.

Interim state Superintendent Lynn House said the department met with Pickering in October and is working on improving the data.

“We want to be responsive to any findings by the state auditor’s office, including quality control of data,” House said in a statement. “The legislatively established Office of Educational Accountability has been working to improve data quality and it will inform the auditor’s office of these improvements as they develop.”

The MAEP formula, which determines how much state money a school district gets, is based partly on how many students are attending school. Pickering says it’s possible some districts are inflating numbers for attendance or free or reduced-price lunches to get more state money.

“Are some school districts intentionally defrauding us? I don’t know,” Pickering said. “Are they gaming the system? Probably. Are they working in an environment where there is no accountability because of the way the system has grown up around them? Very likely.”

Pickering said different districts have different attendance policies, which means schools may get the same amount of money even when students at some schools attend for longer or shorter times than those at other schools. He said the state should require all students to be present for two-thirds of the day or more to be counted for funding purposes.

Pickering estimated 40 percent of districts have “liberal” attendance policies, meaning they count students as present even if they’re only there when roll is called for the day. Others require students to be there longer. Pickering’s evidence is a six-year-old survey done by the auditor’s office when Bryant held the position.

Pickering said his office had been contacted by teachers who said they were instructed to mark all of their students as eligible for the federal free and reduced-price lunch program. The formula gives schools a 5 percent bump in money for serving poor students, as measured by who’s eligible for free or reduced-price lunch.

Pickering said he thought the state should create a different formula based on students eligible for government-paid health insurance, students who get pregnant, and local juvenile delinquency rates.

Rep. Cecil Brown, D-Jackson, said Pickering is “exactly right” that inaccurate figures are being sent in by school districts. Brown has proposed a bill that would penalize superintendents for submitting bad numbers. However, he said he doesn’t support changing the overall formula.

“I am very concerned that there are some people who will try to take what he said, twist what he said, to attack the formula,” Brown said.

Pickering, though, said that’s not his purpose.

“I’m not saying the formula needs to be scrapped,” he said.