Ray Carter | September 14, 2023

Oklahoma school money not flowing to kids with challenges

Ray Carter

Under Oklahoma’s state funding formula, schools receive extra funding for students with learning challenges because the cost of educating those children is greater than the cost of educating other students.

But that money often fails to directly benefit those children, according to officials.

E’Lena Ashley, a self-described conservative who is one of three black individuals serving on the seven-member school board for Tulsa Public Schools, noted that problem during an appearance before the OCPAC Foundation in Oklahoma City.

“An IEP (Individualized Education Program) brings in additional monies for the school,” Ashley said. “I don’t know if those additional monies actually get to the children. We need the money to come off of the top somewhere and get all the way down to the child.”

Under Oklahoma’s state school funding formula, students are assigned “weights” based on individual needs. As a result, one student may be counted as 1.4 students for funding purposes if the student has specific challenges.

Because of “weights” in the state school funding formula, there is a significant difference between the raw number of students in Oklahoma public schools and the “weighted” number.

During the first nine weeks of the 2022-2023 school year, Oklahoma schools reported an average daily membership of 695,613, a figure reflecting total enrollment. But the schools had a weighted average daily membership of 829,967 for purposes of funding distribution. Schools with a larger share of students with higher “weights” receive a disproportionate share of state funding.

The discrepancy is even greater when examining the number of students physically served. During the first nine weeks of the 2022-2023 school year, Oklahoma public schools reported having an average daily attendance of just 651,940, meaning schools were receiving funding for nearly 45,000 enrolled students who were not physically present on an average day.

When she first ran for office in Tulsa Public Schools, Ashley said nearly half of students in the district had qualified for an IEP, which outlines how students with learning challenges will be educated. But she said the Tulsa district failed to produce a written plan for around half of those children, even though a written plan is legally required.

Tulsa school officials claimed all children on an IEP were provided a written plan by the end of June this year, but Ashley said she continues to receive reports from parents indicating otherwise.

“If the school district gets paid, this child needs to get the benefit of having that done,” Ashley said.

Ashley knows firsthand the importance of addressing the learning needs of children who are on an IEP because her son was one of them. As a child, the boy was diagnosed with autism and had challenges speaking and reading due to the sensory issues common with autism. He was put on an IEP. Now an adult, her son today works in information technology and is doing well because he received the extra attention necessary to learn as a youth, Ashley said.

Tulsa is not the only place where it appears schools receive extra money for specific children without using the extra money to directly benefit those children.

Gary Silva, who has taught in Tulsa, told attendees at the OCPAC Foundation luncheon that the problems highlighted by Ashley are not isolated to Tulsa or even Oklahoma, noting he has a granddaughter on an IEP who lives in Texas and has faced similar problems there.

“With my granddaughter’s situation, there’s money coming to support her, but a lot of those finances are not being used for her,” Silva said.

Instead, he said the school uses that money “for whatever they want to.”

“There’s no tracking. There’s no accountability,” said Silva, who is black. “My big thing with this is do what you say. Quit lying to your families. Quit using your children as slaves to make money. I’m being serious.”

The disconnect between schools receiving extra funding and students benefiting from the extra funds has been noted elsewhere.

A 2022 report issued by the Legislative Office of Fiscal Transparency reviewed the state’s funding formula and noted extra funding was not necessarily used for the education of children who generated the money.

“Compensatory funding is allocated to each school district where students generating the funding are served. However, LOFT found no requirements or evidence that compensatory funding is applied for specific student educational needs as intended,” the LOFT report stated.

State Sen. Adam Pugh, an Edmond Republican who chairs the Senate Education Committee, tried to address the problem during the 2023 legislative session.

Senate Bill 527, by Pugh, proposed several changes to the state’s funding formula, including a provision to require schools to use money for the education of children who generate extra funds through the formula.

The bill required that any funding provided to a school to serve children with specific learning needs must be used “to provide instruction and services to students who generated the pupil category weight(s).”

“We’re requiring that if a school receives dollars for a weighted student that they spend those dollars on a weighted student population,” Pugh told lawmakers when he presented the bill on March 23.

SB 527 passed the Oklahoma Senate on a 45-1 vote, but did not receive a vote in the Oklahoma House of Representatives.

Ashley said she is also concerned that schools have been financially incentivized to over-diagnose children because of the extra funding.

Ashley noted there are 35 mental-health organizations present in Tulsa Public Schools.

“We are literally diagnosing our children with anything and everything so that we can have more money,” Ashley said, “and so that we can have more excuses.”

Ray Carter Director, Center for Independent Journalism

Ray Carter

Director, Center for Independent Journalism

Ray Carter is the director of OCPA’s Center for Independent Journalism. He has two decades of experience in journalism and communications. He previously served as senior Capitol reporter for The Journal Record, media director for the Oklahoma House of Representatives, and chief editorial writer at The Oklahoman. As a reporter for The Journal Record, Carter received 12 Carl Rogan Awards in four years—including awards for investigative reporting, general news reporting, feature writing, spot news reporting, business reporting, and sports reporting. While at The Oklahoman, he was the recipient of several awards, including first place in the editorial writing category of the Associated Press/Oklahoma News Executives Carl Rogan Memorial News Excellence Competition for an editorial on the history of racism in the Oklahoma legislature.

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