Stitt

Oklahoma Gov. Kevin Stitt speaks Dec. 14 at the state Capitol.

OKLAHOMA CITY — A controversial bill that attempts to exorcise “ghost students” from the state’s school funding formula advanced through the state Senate on Wednesday despite bipartisan opposition. Gov. Kevin Stitt signed it into law just hours later.

State Sen. Zack Taylor, R-Seminole, said current law bases districts' initial allocation on the higher of the previous two year's average daily student count. The mid-year adjustment is based on the previous two years or the first nine weeks of the school year, whichever is higher.

His bill drops that to one year. The mid-year adjustment now factors in the previous year’s count or the first nine weeks, whichever is higher, he said.

“Let’s not overcomplicate the issue,” Taylor said. “This is very basic reform, very common sense for the taxpayer of Oklahoma.”

But state Sen. Carri Hicks, D-Oklahoma City, said the measure does not adhere to transparency or accountability.

“There was no public input,” she said. “We’re in the middle of a pandemic. Our school leaders, our classroom teachers and our students are overwhelmed with surviving this year. However, the author believes this will not have a destabilizing effect, with no evidence, no data to support those claims. When things are shuffled around at the last minute, we have to ask ourselves whether or not that is in the best interest of the public.”

The Oklahoma State Bureau of Investigation first coined the “ghost student” moniker while investigating potential wrongdoing at Epic Charter Schools. The OSBI used the term in an effort to quantify students enrolled but who weren’t being taught.

The Oklahoma Council of Public Affairs estimates that there are roughly 55,000 ghost students, and about 90% of districts had at least one enrolled. The group said that means about $200 million in taxpayer funds went to districts for students who no longer attended there.

School advocates though say that Oklahoma does not have “ghost students.” They say that the existing funding formula has been proven to be equitable to both declining enrollment districts and growing schools, and eliminating the subsequent previous year would make it difficult for schools when looking at continuing contracts and obligated costs based on a one-year fluctuation in student enrollment.

State Sen. Blake Stephens, R-Tahlequah, said he found himself in an “awkward position” because he’s going to disappoint people. Still, he said he came to the Capitol to represent his constituents, the students in his district and their families.

“What we’re doing today concerns me greatly,” he said before voting against the measure. “I believe that the state of Oklahoma is still in crisis for school teachers. I believe that with all my heart. I don’t see how this is going to be helpful.”

He said superintendents without an extra year to help plan a budget might mistakenly decide to let teachers go. But because of the state’s ongoing teacher shortage, districts don’t have the luxury of picking up a telephone and easily finding a certified teacher in a pinch.

State Rep. Mary Boren, D-Norman, who also opposed the measure, said the vote marked a disappointing and demoralizing day for her. A large majority of parents in her district urged her to vote against it.

“What we see today is a financial way to end up consolidating rural schools,” Boren said.

Boren said in politics there are two groups engaged in a tug-of-war over public policy. On one end of the rope are the public school parents of more than 600,000 students, the state superintendent of schools, the state School Boards Association, parent-teacher associations and advocacy groups that represent teachers and staff. On the other end are the “wealthy and well-connected people” who have enough money to establish their priorities and agendas. She noted that the state Chamber of Commerce, in particular, is among the groups backing the bill.

“This tells us who has the most power in Oklahoma,” Boren said. “One day power will shift to the public school advocates to advance their priorities, but today is not that day. And, the state chamber and those with that same special interest perspective will succeed as they have for decades.”

Chad Warmington, president of the Oklahoma State Chamber, said after the vote that his organization was pleased that they were mentioned during the debate over the bill.

“Open transfer and funding students, not systems, are sensible empowering reforms that we hope are just the beginning of making Oklahoma a top education state,” he said.

Sen. Lonnie Paxton, R-Chickasha, who supported the measure, said that the Legislature can’t keep doing things the way it has always done — raising taxes and putting more money into public schools. Reforms are also needed along the way.

He said this is good legislation.

“I think it’s time for us to make some changes in the state,” Paxton said. “This is a little one compared to the tax increases that we did.”

State Sen. Shane Jett, R-Shawnee, who voted for the measure, said he’s received text messages from coaches and teachers who have been told by superintendents that the bill is going to hurt schools.

“The truth is, it's going to require managerial decision-making in real time, with one-year look back, and adjustments so that they can make the managerial decisions and actually reflect the reality that is Oklahoma today,” Jett said. “So right now, they're pressuring us to not make any changes. It's going to require them to make some hard decisions, but that's what we're paying them the salaries for. I'm confident they'll rise to the challenge once we move forward in this.”

Janelle Stecklein covers the Oklahoma Statehouse for CNHI's newspapers and websites. Reach her at jstecklein@cnhi.com.

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