Friday, August 2, 2019

Who you gonna call?

[Guest post by Jonathan Small]

When the movie “Ghostbusters” premiered in the 1980s, it was just a comedy. But if it’s remade (again) in 2019, the setting may be in Oklahoma’s public school system. That’s because there’s reason to think many districts are receiving funding for “ghost” students who do not attend those schools.

This issue gained attention when it was recently alleged an online charter school has received funding for “ghost” students, but that problem extends statewide.

Here’s why: Oklahoma law distributes state aid based on several factors, and one factor is a district’s average daily membership (ADM). State law allows districts to use the highest weighted ADM of the two preceding school years. As a result, if a district has 400 students one year, 380 the next, and 360 the following year, that district may be funded as though it still has 400 students when it has just 360.

It’s even possible for a student to be counted in multiple districts at the same time if a child moves from a district with declining enrollment to one with surging enrollment.

Just because this is currently legal doesn’t make it a good idea. Given the financial challenges constantly highlighted at schools, why would we expend money paying districts to educate children who are not at those schools?

By the way, “ghost” funding doesn’t occur just at one type of school. While some rural districts may benefit, so can Oklahoma’s largest districts—Oklahoma City and Tulsa—which have also experienced declining enrollment. In the urban centers, families have had good reason to move out, so why would state lawmakers leave in place a system that financially rewards districts like Oklahoma City for poor performance that drives students away?

Pinning down the number of “ghost” students being double-counted or still reflected in district ADMs after moving out of state is no easy task, but there are some hints. According to the Oklahoma Department of Education, the high-year ADM for all schools combined in the 2019 state budget year was 711,560. That compares to a reported total enrollment of 698,586 as of the most recent count, which occurred on Oct. 1, 2018.

That’s a difference of almost 13,000 students. Now, not all those 13,000 are “ghost” students. But if even half of them are, that would easily translate into tens of millions of dollars that have been misallocated for educating nonexistent students.

States like Indiana and Arizona have stopped using backward-looking student counts that result in ghost-student funding and instead rely on current-year headcounts. There’s no reason Oklahoma can’t do the same.

Conservatives and liberals disagree on education policy and spending priorities, but surely we can all agree that paying to “educate imaginary students” should not even be on the list.

  • "We're allocating close to 200 million of your tax dollars to students who don't exist," says Gov. Kevin Stitt. "This is unacceptable." Adds state Rep. Kyle Hilbert: "Every year our schools receive less money per student because our formula sends out money for ghost students, students that do not actually exist. We must end this practice of watering down school finances by (instead) funding schools based on the number of students they actually have in their classrooms."
  • Enrollment figures released in January 2021 show that some districts are being funded for hundreds or even thousands of nonexistent students. In all, "districts may receive at least $195 million combined for 55,236 'ghost' students who do not attend classes in the district but are nonetheless included in enrollment counts used to determine state funding for each district." In short, this farce is now too big to ignore.
  • Oklahoma voters are in a ghostbusting mood, according to a survey of 500 registered Oklahoma voters conducted Sept. 20-24, 2020, by CHS & Associates (margin of error: +/- 4.3%). "This reform is really a no-brainer for most voters," says pollster PatMcFerron, "with three-quarters being supportive. Among Republicans, support expands even more. Even among registered Democrats, however, there is a 42-point advantage for proponents." Specifically, respondents were asked: “As you may know, Oklahoma’s school districts currently receive their funding based on the highest number of students they have served during any of the past three school years. This means that districts with shrinking enrollment are receiving funds for students they are not serving and that those with growing populations are getting less per student than they would otherwise. Would you favor or oppose legislation that funded schools based on the number of students they are serving during that particular school year?"
    • Strongly Favor .......... 51%
    • Somewhat Favor .......... 24%
    • Somewhat Oppose .......... 7%
    • Strongly Oppose .......... 12%
    • Undecided .......... 6%
  • State Rep. Kyle Hilbert (R-Bristow) is sounding the alarm that the number of double-counted students is about to increase dramatically.
  • Oklahoma school districts are getting paid for “ghost students,” says the chairman of the Senate Education Committee, “and they will fight, fight to the death, to maintain those.”

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