Department of Education data provides ghost-student number

February 3, 2021

Curtis Shelton

Here at the Oklahoma Council of Public Affairs, we have highlighted a major problem in our state’s funding formula for public schools: Schools with declining enrollment still receive state funding for children who no longer attend the school, known informally as “ghost students.”

Our analysis of state data shows there may be 55,236 ghost students embedded in the system this year. Some have asked where we get that estimate. The answer is simple: From data reported by public schools and the Oklahoma State Department of Education.

Here’s how it works.

Oklahoma law requires that state school funding be distributed based on several factors, including “the highest weighted average daily membership for the school district of the two (2) preceding school years.”

That means schools with declining enrollment can still receive funding for students who have departed. In many instances, those students have moved to other districts, but the prior-year enrollment counts also include students who have graduated high school in the past two years or moved out of state.

The “weighted” enrollment of a school is a figure that includes student counts adjusted for “weights” added in the funding formula. For example, one student with special needs might count as 1.8 students in the weighted enrollment.

However, the weighted enrollment figure is still tied to the raw number of students at a school. While we can’t know the specific weights assigned to every individual student, we can determine the raw student count used to later determine the “weighted” figure.

That’s why we examined publicly reported enrollment figures to determine how many former students districts may be able to claim for funding purposes this year, even though those students are no longer enrolled in the district.

The Oklahoma State Department of Education recently released the enrollment figures for Oklahoma’s more than 500 public-school districts. Those figures came directly from the districts.

To determine how many former students may be claimed by districts is straightforward. If enrollment was higher during the prior two years, you deduct the current-year enrollment figure from that prior-year number and the difference reveals how many “ghost students” a district can potentially claim.

We ran those numbers for more than 500 individual school districts. Then we took the total number of “ghost students” that could be claimed in each district and added them together to get the statewide total. That provided a total of 55,236.

(You can view a pdf of that breakdown here.)

Given that the state-aid figure for 2021 is $3,533 per student, that translates into at least $195.1 million that may be allocated for the education of nonexistent students throughout Oklahoma schools.

That figure may shock many Oklahomans, but a look at broad trends shows why it is sound. To cite just one example, due to COVID-19 shutdowns in many districts, families across Oklahoma have shifted students into statewide virtual charters schools this year. The enrollment of online provider Epic Charter Schools alone surged by 31,377 students this year. Even as Epic receives state funding for those additional 31,377 students this year, the schools where those students previously attended can potentially include the same students in the enrollment counts they use for funding purposes.

Many other families have shifted their children to private schools or are homeschooling this year. With such broad shifts occurring across the state, the bigger surprise may be that the “ghost student” figure is not even larger.

The fact that schools are paid for departed students is no secret and has been acknowledged in public by school officials.

For example, the chief financial officer for Owasso Public Schools discussed this reality at a school board meeting last fall.

Owasso schools’ CFO Phillip Storm said, “I think we all know that all schools this year are seeing a little bit of declining enrollment. Owasso is no different.”

But Storm told board members not to worry because the state funding formula “is set up so that if a school is declining enrollment, they can use the higher weighted number of the year just ended, or the year before that, or their first quarter. So, I know that our first-quarter number this year is going to be low, so that will not be our fund number.”

He stressed that the school would not feel a financial impact from this year’s declining enrollment because of the continued state payment for departed students.

“We don’t see the brunt of that student loss this year,” Storm said. “If it were to continue for a couple more years, then we would probably see the effect of that.”

The situation brings to mind the movie comedy, “Ghostbusters,” for more than one reason.

In one scene from that movie, one character discusses the challenges of leaving academia: “Personally, I liked the university. They gave us money and facilities. We didn’t have to produce anything! You’ve never been out of college! You don’t know what it's like out there! I’ve worked in the private sector. They expect results.”

Unfortunately for Oklahoma families, so long as school officials know they can be paid whether students attend classes in the school or not, there’s not much reason for them to prioritize getting the best results for children.