The Republican Pickering said he could not “in good conscience” verify many of the numbers submitted to the state Department of Education by school districts to receive funds from the Adequate Education Program.
“Are school districts intentionally defrauding? I don’t know,” Pickering told the committee. “Are they gaming the system? Very likely.”
He said at the very least there is “an environment of unaccountability.”
Through the Adequate Education Program, school districts receive state funds based on the average daily attendance of their students. Property-poor districts receive a larger amount per student than do the more wealthy districts.
At issue, according to Pickering, is that there is no set definition of average daily attendance. He said in some cases a student might stay at school for a short period of time and be counted for the funding formula while other districts do no count students unless they are there for a much longer period of time.
Plus, districts receive an extra 5 percent per student for those in the federal free and reduced lunch program because they are deemed to be more at-risk, thus costing more to educate. Pickering said he is not allowed to audit the federal program, thus he could not certify the results provided by school districts of the number of students in the program.
He also cited problems with how the state textbook, transportation and gifted programs are overseen by either the school districts or the state Department of Education. He acknowledged the part of the problem with the textbook program is lack of state funding to carry out the mandates in the law.
House Appropriations Chair Herb Frierson, R-Poplarville, said he hopes either the state Board of Education or the Legislature clarifies what is meant by average daily attendance so each district reports the information uniformly. But he said he doubts the Legislature acts this year on Pickering’s recommendation to change how districts receive additional funds for at-risk students.
Sen. Hob Bryan, D-Amory, who played a major role in developing the funding formula in the 1990s, said the free lunch program was used not to provide funds for individual students, but “as a proxy for the poverty of the district” because districts with more students living in poverty have more obstacles to overcome in providing an adequate education.
Bryan said it is unfortunate that some might think that Mississippi schools are overfunded.
“Schools in Mississippi using this formula are among the lowest funded in the nation,” Bryan said. “And if the formula is fully funded, they will still be among the lowest funded.”
In a response to Pickering’s comments to the Appropriations Committee, the state Department of Education said officials in the agency met with the Pickering in October and “want to be responsive to any findings by the state auditor’s office, and we are working to address several issues, including quality control of data.”
Pickering stressed that he did not know if the changes he is proposing would result in less or more funds for the Adequate Education Program.
“My emphasis is that the numbers going into the program are not accurate,” Pickering said.