INDIANAPOLIS | Indiana taxpayers shelled out nearly $94 million to public schools last year to support "ghost" students no longer attending those schools.
State legislators learned Wednesday that, in 2009, schools got paid for 16,315 students no longer in attendance. How to change the formula to be more fair to all students was at the heart of a Statehouse committee meeting Wednesday.
"That's just absolutely horrendous that we're spending $94 million on students that don't even exist," said state Rep. Terry Goodin, D-Crothersville.
Indiana spends about $8.5 billion on elementary and secondary education each year.
State Superintendent of Public Instruction Tony Bennett told the committee Indiana needs a systemic change in the way it funds schools. The first-term Republican said education money should follow students and each student should be allowed to use those resources at any school in the state -- including private schools.
"I don't think the job of the state should be to continue to pour money into the way we've always done things," Bennett said.
But state Sen. Tim Skinner, D-Terre Haute, a high school social studies teacher, said Bennett's desire for wholesale change is moving too fast, could destroy public schools and has left state education "in turmoil."
"You think you have the right answers? I don't even think you have the right questions," Skinner told Bennett. "I think you are destroying the state of Indiana's most valuable assets."
When a student leaves a school, the state school funding formula provides that school with continued funding for that student at a declining rate for three additional years. This funding, known as the "de-ghoster," has been part of the funding formula since 1981.
The money is needed, say supporters like state Sen. Earline Rogers, D-Gary, because school corporations have to pay for programs and fixed expenses that continue even if enrollment drops.
"It's not money that's being wasted, it's money that's being used by those students that are left," said Rogers, a former Gary school teacher.
Critics of the de-ghoster say that money should be redirected toward schools with increasing enrollment.
State Sen. Ed Charbonneau, R-Valparaiso, is chairman of the General Assembly's study committee on the school funding formula. He said after learning how much Indiana pays for nonexistent students it may be time to consider changing the formula.
"Ultimately, I think everybody wants what's best for the students in Indiana. The different ways of coming at it -- that's the struggle," Charbonneau said.
The study committee is slated to meet again in late October to make recommendations for funding formula changes to the General Assembly.