OKLAHOMA CITY — Gov. Kevin Stitt vows to exorcise “ghost students” he says haunt the state’s school funding formula.

At his State of the State address last week, the Republican governor said Oklahomans can reimagine the future of public education by cracking down on how schools are funded. He said the current formula allows students who have moved from one district to another to be counted in both.

“They’re called ‘ghost students,’” Stitt said. “We’re sending money to districts to educate kids who don’t go there, and that’s simply not fair.”

He wants school funding based on current enrollment.

Current law allows districts every August to use the highest enrollment number of the past two years. That means some districts could have been compensated off their 2019 enrollment numbers if it was the highest available when school started last fall.

“First and foremost, we do not have ‘ghost students’ in Oklahoma schools,” said Shawn Hime, executive director of the state School Boards Association. “Our funding formula has been proven to be very equitable, and fair to both declining enrollment schools and growing schools.”

He said a change legislators are proposing would eliminate payment on the subsequent previous year, and only use the prior year count, and that would make it difficult for schools when looking at continuing contracts and obligated costs.

The way districts are structured means they can’t make quick decisions, he said.

“And, you don’t want to make quick decisions when you’re talking about quality educators based on a one-year fluctuation in student enrollment,” Hime said.

Hime also said he doesn’t know how state leaders would define a “ghost student” when any formula Oklahoma has had in the past or that is being proposed would still be funded based on at least one prior year’s student enrollment count.

The Oklahoma State Bureau of Investigation first coined the “ghost student” moniker while investigating potential wrongdoing at Epic Charter Schools. The OSBI used the term in an effort to quantify students enrolled but that weren’t being taught, said Curtis Shelton, a policy research fellow with the Oklahoma Council of Public Affairs, which identifies as an organization supporting "free enterprise, limited government, individual initiative and personal responsibility."

Shelton’s group requested enrollment numbers from the state Department of Education and used a formula to attempt to calculate just how many “ghost students” attend Oklahoma schools, and concluded about 90% of Oklahoma school districts had at least one "ghost student" enrolled.

In all, there were roughly 55,000 ghost students, meaning about $200 million in taxpayer funds went to districts that these students no longer attended, he said.

Shelton’s group is advocating for changes in law that would better ensure money follows the student as intended and would be more accurately tied to current enrollment numbers. He also suggested lawmakers consider allowing a one-year option, instead of two.

“It would still provide districts enough of a buffer to make budgeting decisions that are accurate, but it would tie funding closer to the current enrollment numbers,” Shelton said.

Janelle Stecklein covers the Oklahoma Statehouse for CNHI's newspapers and websites.

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