Many government schools across Oklahoma are receiving funding to educate “ghost students” who no longer attend them.
The distribution of state school funding is based on several factors, including “the highest weighted average daily membership for the school district of the two (2) preceding school years,” Oklahoma law states.
The use of the highest average daily membership figure from prior years guarantees many school districts receive funding for students who have transferred to other districts, graduated, or even moved out of state.
“Those are ‘ghost students’ that they are getting paid for, and they will fight, fight to the death, to maintain those,” said state Sen. Gary Stanislawski (R-Tulsa), chair of the Senate Education Committee.
The enrollment of ghost students in online Epic Charter Schools put the spotlight on the issue when the Oklahoma State Bureau of Investigation executed a search warrant of an Epic teacher’s home on July 15.
Because Oklahoma’s school-funding formula provides “weights” based on a student’s grade level and demographics, the financial gain to government schools when some students leave can be even higher than what occurs when others move, states a study of Oklahoma’s school-funding formula by Byron Schlomach, director of the 1889 Institute.
“On a grade-level basis under Oklahoma’s system, a fourth, fifth, or sixth grader is counted as a single student,” Schlomach wrote. “Students at every other grade level are counted as slightly more than a single student.”
As a result, if a student in the first grade moves out of a district, the financial benefit of the retained “ghost” funding for that student is greater than what would occur if a fourth grader moved away.
‘We Get Nothing Done’
Politics is the reason Oklahoma public school funding is not based on current enrollment, says former state Rep. Dennis Casey (R-Morrison), who served as vice chair of the House Appropriations & Budget Committee and on a funding-formula task force.
“Every time you do something, there’s winners and there’s losers,” Casey said. “And so, as politicians, I don’t know if they really want to do anything, because they’ll look at it and go, ‘Well, that affects my district.’ Or they’ll say, ‘I’m all for this. This helps my district.’ And so, we get nothing done.”
Everybody Wins—Except Taxpayers
Each school year, Oklahoma holds back some funds for districts that experience growth beyond expectations. Those funds are released in the middle of the school year, based on student figures provided after classes start.
As a result, even officials at districts that are technically shortchanged by the school-funding formula are content to leave it in place despite its funding of ghost students elsewhere, says Casey.
“You kind of have the best of both worlds,” Casey said. “You get the money because you grew, and you’ve got the money even though you’ve gotten smaller.”
‘Make the Case’
Supporters of the current funding formula argue districts hire staff and make other purchases in advance of a school year. If enrollment is significantly lower than expected, it can create financial problems. Nonetheless, it is a mistake to provide excess funding to those schools automatically, Schlomach says.
“You ought to make these districts actually make the case for why they ought to get relatively more funding while they’re losing enrollment,” Schlomach said.
Similar objections were raised in Arizona, says Matthew Ladner, senior research strategist for the Arizona Chamber Foundation and coauthor of the 2012 Report Card on Education published by the American Legislative Exchange Council.
“There’s always some case that the districts will make for keeping things this way,” Ladner said.
Arizona faced similar ghost-student problems due to its funding formula, says Ladner.
In Arizona, public charter schools were funded based on current-year student counts, but traditional government schools were funded based on the prior year’s student numbers. When students left a traditional public school for a public charter school, it resulted in double-funding students for a year, Ladner says.
“A kid would leave a district to go to a charter school, which happens frequently, and the district would still be getting funded for them, and the state would fund them in their new charter school this year,” Ladner said.
Eventually, Arizona revised the funding formula, Ladner says.
“I think, in the end, it was like, “All right, guys, look: If we’re going to draw up a list of funding priorities, where does funding ghost students fall on the priority list?’ So, they made the change.”
‘A Legal Way to Rob’
Legislation has been filed many times to eliminate the use of backward-looking head counts that result in the funding of ghost students at Oklahoma schools, but without success, Stanislawski says.
“It’s a legal way to rob other school districts, and yet they all don’t mind playing that game and being robbed,” Stanislawski said. “It’s a farce.”
A legislative measure to address the issue of ghost students cleared the Oklahoma Senate this year and could receive a hearing in the House in the 2020 session, Stanislawski says.
“It’s not equitable for all students across the state,” Stanislawski said. “The funding formula needs to be modernized.”
Ray Carter ([email protected]) is director of the Center for Independent Journalism at the Oklahoma Council of Public Affairs. OCPA published an earlier version of this article. Reprinted with permission.
State Sen. Gary Stanislawski (R-Tulsa): http://www.oksenate.gov/Senators/biographies/stanislawski_bio.html
Byron Schlomach, “A Primer for Understanding Oklahoma’s School Funding System,” Policy Handbook, 1889 Institute, July 31, 2015: https://heartland.org/publications-resources/publications/a-primer-for-understanding-oklahomas-school-funding-system