Newly released enrollment figures show districts across Oklahoma are likely receiving state funding for students who no longer attend classes there, informally referred to as “ghost students.” In some cases, districts are being funded for hundreds or even thousands of such nonexistent students.
The practice of paying schools to educate students who do not exist is drawing scrutiny from policymakers and parents alike.
“It’s definitely an issue, because students are being double-counted on multiple campuses,” said Rep. Kyle Hilbert, a Bristow Republican who is vice-chair of the House Appropriations and Budget Committee. “It happens in a normal year. We have, I would estimate, a little over 2 percent of our funding formula watered down in a normal year, but that figure is without a doubt well above 2 percent this year due to all of the parents that have been moving their children into different schools, whether that’s the many that have chosen virtual options or the ones that have just been trying to find a school that is physically open because the one that is registered to their ZIP code isn’t.”
“In any business, you don’t get money from customers that you don’t serve, so why are schools different?” asked Jennifer Johnson, an Owasso parent who is active in Parent Voice Oklahoma, an organization that works to elevate the role of parents in school decisions across the state.
Funding for “ghost students” occurs because state law requires that 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.”
As a result of distributing state aid based on the highest enrollment figure from a three-year period, schools with declining enrollment can receive continued funding for students who transferred to other districts, graduated, or even moved out of state.
Newly released enrollment data show that hundreds of Oklahoma’s more than 500 school districts experienced enrollment declines this year and can receive state appropriations for nonexistent students under the current funding formula.
In some cases, schools that have experienced double-digit percentage declines since the 2018-2019 school year—including declines of more than 20 percent in student enrollment—will have experienced no reduction in associated state aid because of the use of prior-year enrollment figures.
At just eight of Oklahoma’s largest districts—Oklahoma City, Tulsa, Edmond, Moore, Broken Arrow, Putnam City, Union, and Norman—enrollment data indicate 19,145 ghost students may be included in the figures used to allocate state funding to those districts.
Under current state law, the Oklahoma City school district’s funding can be based on its 2018-2019 enrollment of 44,138, even though it reports just 37,344 students enrolled today. That translates into nearly 6,800 nonexistent ghost students for which the district may receive funding.
Tulsa’s state funding can be based on its 2018-2019 enrollment of 39,056, rather than its current enrollment of 35,765, a difference of 3,291 students.
Norman’s enrollment figures indicate it will financially benefit from 1,870 ghost students. At Putnam City, the figure is 1,823. At Union, the district may receive state funding for 856 students who do not attend school there. Broken Arrow may be funded for 817 ghost students, and Moore’s state-appropriated funds may include money for 1,571 students who do not attend classes in the district. Edmond’s enrollment data shows its funding may include money for 2,123 ghost students.
Because officials at many larger districts in urban areas chose not to reopen for full-time, in-person instruction, many families shifted students to online providers this year. Epic Charter Schools, through two entities, reported a combined enrollment of 59,455 students, an increase of 31,377 students. eSchool Virtual Charter Academy’s enrollment increased by more than 900 students. Insight School of Oklahoma, another virtual charter school, saw its enrollment increase by nearly 200. Online provider Oklahoma Connections Academy added another 667 students.
Unlike traditional public schools, however, funding for online charter schools is based on current-year enrollment.
Johnson noted Oklahoma’s school-funding system penalizes schools that attract new students with better service, because funding is watered down by the double-counting of students elsewhere.
Hilbert made a similar point, noting schools that receive an influx of students receive less funding than what would occur if money were appropriated based on a formula that did not double-count children or include ghost students.
Hilbert predicted that problem will become greater in coming years if many students shift back to traditional districts from online providers.
The cumulative amount of money diverted to schools to serve ghost students can be significant. Both Indiana and Arizona previously used funding formulas containing provisions similar to Oklahoma’s but have eliminated ghost-student funding in recent years.
In 2009, Indiana’s state superintendent of public instruction estimated Indiana taxpayers had sent $94 million to schools to support more than 16,000 students who were not enrolled in those districts.
A report from the Goldwater Institute estimated Arizona was paying $125 million annually to educate more than 13,000 ghost students.
Online students are not the only Oklahoma pupils being double-counted at other districts in the state’s school-funding formula. Many parents have chosen to homeschool or enroll their children in private school this year due to the lack of reliable service in a local public school.
Johnson’s children are among that group. Her children attended school in the Owasso district until this year, when the district’s decision not to consistently provide in-person instruction prompted Johnson and her husband to seek alternatives.
Her children are now among 747 departed students that may still be counted as part of Owasso’s enrollment when calculating the school’s state funding.
“The model that’s in place is extremely flawed—that schools are getting money for students who aren’t even enrolled there—because the money should follow the students so that whoever is providing the education can be compensated for that,” Johnson said. “As we have homeschooled our kids this year, we have put out a lot of money for that for the different curriculums and for all of the supplies, yet Owasso Public Schools is getting the money for both of my kids this year. And I feel like that is really a severely flawed system.”