Baltimore's 'ghost students'

School officials are still trying to figure out why enrollment in Baltimore public schools appears to have unexpectedly dropped after years of growth. With fewer students attending classes the schools could lose up to $30 million in state and city funding pegged to per-pupil spending. Investigators need to get to bottom of how the system's enrollment figures suddenly dropped by nearly 2,000 students.

Whenever such discrepancies come to light there's a tendency to blame the city schools for lax management or sloppy oversight. It's easy to ridicule school administrators for counting "ghost" students to pad enrollment figures and boost funding. But in this case there may be more to it than that. It was, after all, city schools CEO Gregory Thornton himself who sounded the alarm when the numbers didn't add up.


As The Sun's Erica Green reported this week, school enrollment has fallen by about 1,900 students according to Mr. Thornton's calculations. Some of that appears to be an ordinary, legitimate year-over-year decline due to factors including a smaller cohort of youngsters entering the system this year and a trend of falling enrollments among students who don't receive free or reduced price lunch; for whatever reason they seem to be exiting the system at a slightly higher rate than their most disadvantaged peers, a circumstance that bears investigating in its own right. But part of the issue also appears to be an unintended consequence of earlier efforts to retain at-risk students who otherwise might have slipped through the cracks and dropped out altogether.

No one would argue that the school system should collect state and city taxpayer dollars to educate students who aren't actually in its classrooms. But one also needs to consider recent history, when former schools CEO Andrés Alonso launched an ambitious campaign to reduce the number of students leaving school before graduation. That initiative gave principals and administrators incentives to reach out to students at risk of dropping out and bringing them back to the classroom, where they could continue their education in alternative settings rather than be left behind by the wayside.


Did some kids get carried on the rolls longer than they should have been as a result of that initiative? Did some principals get too comfortable with counting kids as still enrolled even if they didn't meet new enrollment rules that required students to regularly attend class during the first two months of the school year? Perhaps so. But the idea of keeping kids on the rolls nevertheless originally served a worthy goal by encouraging administrators not to give up on problem students, even if it meant going to their houses and knocking on the door to urge them back to class.

Under the school funding formula adopted by the state and city, a 1,900-student drop in enrollment, coupled with growth in city property tax revenues, could result in a loss of some $24 million in state aid and another $6 million in city school funding. On top of the $24 million state school funding cut the city sustained last year in Gov. Larry Hogan's budget, Baltimore could lose nearly $50 million in funding for its schools in just two years. That's unacceptable for a system that has struggled for years to raise achievement levels among some of the state's most disadvantaged youngsters.

Fortunately, Baltimore officials are unlikely to reduce the city's contribution to the schools no matter what. Cuts of that magnitude would mean fewer teachers in the classroom, fewer extracurricular programs such as after school and summer school programs and reduced services for students and their families.

But the state needs to step up to the plate too. Maryland is enjoying a healthy budget surplus this year for the first time in a decade, and Mr. Hogan has come to the rescue of schools in Carroll, Kent and Garrett counties, providing extra funds to compensate for significant enrollment declines in those jurisdictions. If the governor is willing to bail out troubled school districts with additional state funds over and above what the current school funding formula requires, Baltimore certainly deserves to be on that list as well.