Budget & Tax, Education

Time for some ghost-busting in Oklahoma education

February 1, 2021

Curtis Shelton

Many of Oklahoma’s public school districts may be haunted. Official enrollment records show that nearly 90 percent of Oklahoma school districts have at least one “ghost student."

No, these districts do not have eerie specters roaming the halls. “Ghost student” is the term used to describe students who have moved from one school district to another but still count toward their previous district’s enrollment figure when calculating state funding.

This is because Oklahoma law states that school districts receive funding based off the highest student enrollment number from the preceding two years. Thus, a district with declining enrollment will still receive funding for students enrolled in previous years. For example, Oklahoma City Public Schools had 37,344 students enrolled for the 2021 school year, but will receive funding for 44,138 students (its enrollment number in 2018), giving the district 6,794 ghost students. Spooky, I know.

Currently, Oklahoma has more than 55,000 ghost students at an estimated cost of $200 million. Most of these students are in the metro areas such as Oklahoma City and Tulsa. The state's 10 largest school districts account for more than 20,000 ghost students. This number may be higher than usual as a large number of students have left traditional public schools (many of which have curtailed in-person instruction) and instead chosen online options such as Epic Charter Schools. Epic, both in its online-only and blended models, has seen enrollment increase by more than 30,000 during the past year.

This double-counting hurts districts that are attracting new students because funding is funneled to the districts that no longer enroll these students. That leaves less money for the districts that are actually doing the educating.

Indiana and Arizona are two states that faced a similar issue and have since changed their funding formulas so that the money more directly follows the student. Oklahoma should follow that lead and convert its funding system to a real-time funding model. This would allow state funding to follow the student and provide growing districts with a more accurate amount of state dollars. This common-sense reform would help strengthen Oklahoma’s education system without adding tax dollars.

The good news is that Gov. Kevin Stitt and state lawmakers are considering making this change during this year’s legislative session. They should do so. Oklahoma's students deserve full funding now.