Gazette opinion: Questions of fairness in Montana school funding

2012-06-04T00:00:00Z Gazette opinion: Questions of fairness in Montana school funding The Billings Gazette
June 04, 2012 12:00 am

Montana’s school funding laws ought to be simpler.

Policymakers and average citizens need to be able to understand the funding system so they can determine whether it is meeting the constitutional mandate to provide quality education to all Montana children.

One unfortunate feature of system complexity is the disparity in how much funding is made available for students in large and small districts.

Under the state law, each elementary district receives a basic entitlement, which was $23,033 for this academic year, according to the Office of Public Instruction. In addition, each district receives $4,955 for the first student. That per student funding is reduced by 20 cents for each additional student until the 1,000th student. All students above 1,000 are funded at $4,755 — $200 less than the first student.

So if a district has 11 elementary students, it has a basic entitlement of $23,033 plus per student funding of between $4,955 and $4,953 for each student.

The Billings elementary district with 8,500 K-6 students also receives a basic entitlement of $23,033. That amounts to $1,047 for each of Billings’ 22 public elementary schools. The law also allows Billings between $4,955 and $4,755 per student, with 7,500 of the students funded at the lowest amount.

With so many students, the decrement of $200 means that Billings elementary schools get $1.5 million less than they would have if they received $4,955 for each student.

Furthermore, if the state provided a basic entitlement to each school, instead of each district, Billings K-6 schools would receive an additional $483,693.

Altogether, Billings public elementary schools this year were funded about $2 million less than the state would have spent on the same number of students divided among 22 districts.

Here’s two questions that voters in Billings ought to ask all candidates for Legislature and governor:

Is it fair that elementary schools with between 260 and 540 students each get a basic entitlement that amounts to only $1,047?

Is it fair to Billings students that thousands of them are in overcrowded classrooms while their per-student funding is less than it would be if each school was a separate district?

The basic entitlement and per-student funding are the largest components of Montana’s school funding formula. Students in every Montana district are constitutionally entitled to quality in public education. There are fixed costs that don’t decrease when student enrollment drops below a certain level. So some minimum level of support for the smallest districts makes sense.

However, all Montana districts are funded as if each is only one school. The economies of scale that the system imposes on Billings cut into the district’s ability to provide quality education to 8,500 K-6 students.

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