Budget & Tax , Education

Ray Carter | July 27, 2022

Watchdog: Oklahoma schools paid millions for unnecessary services

Ray Carter

Oklahoma schools have received millions of dollars in annual funding to teach English to bilingual students who have already mastered the language, apparently allowing schools to inflate their budgets without providing extra services, a state watchdog agency has found.

Officials with the Legislative Office of Fiscal Transparency (LOFT) also determined that schools may be similarly profiting off increased per-pupil payments provided based on the number of low-income students served, noting schools are not required to use those funds for the benefit of those specific students.

“State funding (amounts) generated for economically disadvantaged students are not applied to specific supports or services,” said Bradley Ward, program evaluator for LOFT. “Instead, the additional funding is directed to school districts’ general-operating funds.”

Those findings were among those presented from LOFT’s review of Oklahoma’s K-12 public-school funding. The report was presented to legislators serving on the agency’s oversight board during the group’s July 26 meeting.

Oklahoma school districts received $424 million in increased per-pupil funding for serving economically disadvantaged and bilingual students in the 2020-2021 school year.

While schools are paid additional per-pupil funding for a wide range of student groups, the state does not require schools to spend the money on aiding those specific students or report outcomes for any of those groups aside from students in special-education and gifted-and-talented programs, Ward said.

While schools receive extra funding for bilingual students—a group that has increased in size 49 percent since 2011—LOFT officials determined many of those students are fluent in English and require no extra services.

In the most recent year for which data were available, 30 percent of students identified as bilingual learners had already mastered English. That translated into $10.1 million in excess state funding sent to the schools serving those students, LOFT reviewers found.

In other years, the share of such students has been as high as 43 percent.

Ward noted many states target funding for only English-language learners, not all bilingual students, and most states require reporting on whether schools succeed in teaching those students to master English. He said Oklahoma has no such reporting requirement.

“As Oklahoma does not require a reassessment of bilingual students’ English proficiency, there is no way to measure whether the additional support is having the intended effect of helping students achieve proficiency,” Ward said.

That caught some lawmakers off-guard.

“There’s no requirement necessarily to spend any of that additional weight (funding) to address that issue?” said state Sen. Michael Brooks, D-Oklahoma City. “Is that correct?”

“Yes,” responded Mike Jackson, executive director of LOFT.

State Superintendent of Public Instruction Joy Hofmeister said she and the Oklahoma State Department of Education (OSDE) supported bills filed in 2019 and 2020 that would have altered the state’s school-funding formula so additional money would be directed only to English learners and not bilingual students who have already mastered English.

But House Appropriations and Budget Committee chairman Kevin Wallace noted those measures were opposed by school districts that have reaped excess payments from English-proficient bilingual students. Those schools, he noted, argued the funding formula should not be altered unless overall funding was increased to the point that they faced no reduction in state appropriations.

As a result, rather than simply shifting $10.1 million to schools that truly served English-learner students, the bills became costly boondoggles.

“This is off of my memory: It would have taken $60-plus million to make everybody whole that might have taken a loss,” said Wallace, R-Wellston.

Hofmeister indicated she did not support fixing the problem if schools currently receiving excess payments take a significant cut.

“When I refer to balance, we are talking about either an amount to hold harmless the impact immediately, or a graduated, incremental approach to that,” Hofmeister said.

LOFT’s review also found administrative spending in schools continues to outpace spending on classroom instruction.

“Between 2010 and 2021, administrative expenditures increased by 40 percent, compared to a 35-percent increase in instructional expenditures,” Jackson said.

He said growth in administrative spending is not tied to any increase in regulatory requirements.

Over the last five years, LOFT found the number of administrative employees in Oklahoma schools has increased by 8 percent. During that same period, there was no overall growth in student enrollment.

“If the growth of school administrative personnel had followed student-enrollment growth between 2011 and 2021, approximately $26.4 million in salary and benefits for school-administrative staff could have been available to hire the equivalent of 500 teachers,” Jackson said.

Over the past 10 years, LOFT officials noted, administrative positions have increased by 13 percent, and seven out of 10 administrative positions grew at a faster rate than did the number of certified teachers. The number of deans and assistant principals have increased at the fastest rate.

Senate Appropriations Committee chairman Roger Thompson, R-Okemah, said he believes the growth in the number of deans is caused by schools trying to pay administrative-level salaries to employees who are not legally qualified to hold administrative positions.

“My personal thought is—and I could be very wrong—is that they don’t qualify to be principals; they don’t qualify to be superintendents,” Thompson said. “And so they appoint them deans and pay them for that until they are able to meet the qualifications.”

Hofmeister said many positions should be included as part of the calculation for classroom instruction that are currently excluded. Hofmeister also blamed COVID and changes in financial coding over the past decade for causing some of the reported growth in administration spending.

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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