Saturday, January 16, 2021

OCPA column: Paying for "ghost" students


Paying for “ghost” students
By Jonathan Small

Status-quo defenders insist waste, fraud and mismanagement in state government is overhyped. Then how do they explain Oklahoma schools being paid to educate more than 55,000 “ghost students”?

Ghost-student funding has been in place for years, but COVID-19 has put it on steroids.

Oklahoma law distributes state funding based on several factors, one of which is “the highest weighted average daily membership for the school district of the two (2) preceding school years.

Put in plain English, that means a school can be paid for students who attended two years ago but are no longer there. Thus, even amidst a significant enrollment decline, districts receive huge sums for “teaching” nonexistent “ghost” students.

This funding farce is now too big to ignore. Due to COVID-19 and several districts’ refusal to provide full-time, in-person instruction, there has been a mass exodus to alternatives, including credible online providers such as Epic, other districts, private schools, and homeschooling.

Newly released enrollment figures show Oklahoma schools can now claim more than 55,000 ghost students this year via use of old enrollment numbers. If ghost students were confined to a single school district, it would be larger than any brick-and-mortar district in Oklahoma—by far.

The financial consequences of ghost-student funding are not minor. The state-aid figure for 2021 is $3,533.17 per student, so those 55,000-plus ghost students translate into at least $195.1 million in misallocated funding.

Just 22 districts account for more than 55 percent of ghost students. Oklahoma City has nearly 6,800 ghost students while Tulsa has 3,291. Those ghost-student payments are on top of money both districts receive for other students who have not received full-time, in-person instruction this year. Because of that poor service, the share of high-school students flunking at least one class in Oklahoma City has surged to 59 percent, and the failure rate in other districts has doubled or tripled, according to KWTV.

Ghost-student funding particularly harms rural schools that have remained open. Those schools have been teaching children, and often steer clear of the political indoctrination seen elsewhere, yet they are being shorted financially for doing their job as other school officials play political games.

One reason school leaders in urban areas have been so indifferent to the needs of families is that ghost-student funding shields them from the full financial consequences of their shutdown decisions.

Schools need to be held accountable for performance. Tying funding to current-year enrollment can be part of that process, although the best reform would be to let tax funding follow the child and empower parents to independently pick any school, whether public or private.

Those of us in the private sector don’t get paid unless we provide promised goods or services to customers. There’s no reason schools should be any different.

Jonathan Small serves as president of the Oklahoma Council of Public Affairs.

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