Oklahoma House lawmakers vote to keep 'ghost students' at bay, expand school transfers
House lawmakers voted to expand transfers between public schools and to limit the “ghost students” that could appear as a result.
House Bill 2074 and 2078, written as complimentary bills, passed votes on the House Floor on Wednesday. Both bills now move on to the state Senate.
Republicans hailed the legislation as education reform that empowers parents and cleans up financial inefficiency. Democrats, school leaders and education advocacy groups said they fear the proposed changes to school funding could deeply affect urban and rural districts and leave underserved families behind.
HB 2074, called the Education Open Transfer Act, passed with a 77-22 vote. It would extend the open transfer window year-round, limit a school district’s ability to deny transfer students and eliminate emergency transfers, which require specific criteria to complete.
Districts that receive more incoming transfer requests than their capacity allows would have to use a lottery system to decide which transfer students are accepted.
Rep. Brad Boles, who co-wrote the bill with House Speaker Charles McCall, said the COVID-19 pandemic brought school transfers to the forefront. He said some families preferred in-person education and wished to move their children to districts offering it.
“I think there’s a lot of things we’ve learned with the pandemic. It kind of exposes issues that you’ve had,” Boles, R-Marlow, said on the House Floor. “I think that exposed it, but also we hear all the time from parents who would like more options for their kids.”
Democrats said expanded transfers are not a solution for impoverished families who lack transportation. The Minority Caucus mostly opposed both bills, arguing they failed to add more funding to education or to address core issues that cause low-income schools to struggle.
“It’s going to accelerate white flight to the suburbs,” Rep. John Waldron, D-Tulsa, said. “It’s going to accelerate the decline of many of our rural communities. It’s going to leave large pockets of poor students, often Black and brown, in even more poorly funded schools in already stressed rural or urban areas.”
Some rural Republicans voted in agreement with the Democratic minority, with six opposing the open transfer bill and 13 voting against changes to school funding.
HB 2078, which passed 68-30, would make it less likely for more than one district to receive funds for the same student. Critics say it would destabilize school funding and make districts more vulnerable to sudden layoffs and program cuts.
Oklahoma City Public Schools estimates this legislation could reduce its budget by $8 million to $10 million. Superintendent Sean McDaniel said the district is in constant contact with elected officials to inform them of the “deep impact” the bill could have on students, families and staff.
“While this is significant, OKCPS leaders are more than prepared to address the shortfall in a manner that protects the classroom,” McDaniel said in a statement. “That said, the legislative process is a marathon, not a sprint; and OKCPS is committed to working closely with our legislators throughout the session.”
The bill also drew opposition from the Oklahoma City teachers union, OKC-American Federation of Teachers, and from statewide organizations representing Oklahoma school boards, school administrators, rural schools and suburban schools.
Rep. Kyle Hilbert, R-Depew, said he wrote the bill to function “hand in hand” with the expansion of open transfers.
“Open transfer, for that to be successful we also have to make sure the money is following students,” Hilbert said.
He said he became interested in changing funding rules when he saw scores of families leaving traditional districts for virtual charter schools last year.
Epic Charter Schools became the largest district in Oklahoma when its enrollment doubled over the summer to nearly 60,000 students. That enrollment figure could dictate Epic’s state funding for the next two years, even if students return to brick-and-mortar schools.
The amount of money a district receives from the state at the start of the school year is based on its highest enrollment count from the two preceding years, with the current school year enrollment factored in by January.
When students change schools, it creates the possibility that their current and former districts both receive funds for the same child.
HB 2078 would have school funds be based on the enrollment count only from the prior school year, not two years ago. It also would allow districts to carry over more money from year to year in their general fund.
If the bill is signed into law, districts that decline in enrollment would see their funding drop more immediately. Large urban districts, like Oklahoma City, and rural schools that chronically lose students would feel the brunt of the effect, especially if more families use open transfers to leave.
The ability to use enrollment counts from up to two years ago caused the state to pay for 55,475 more students than who attended Oklahoma public schools this year, costing at least an extra $187.5 million.
Gov. Kevin Stitt and Republican lawmakers use the phrase “ghost students” to describe this overlap.
The number of these “ghost students” more than tripled this year with more families transferring schools or delaying their children’s entry into pre-K and kindergarten, according to data from the Oklahoma State Department of Education.
“We’re sending money to districts to educate kids who don’t go there, and that’s simply not fair,” Stitt said in his State of the State address Feb. 1.