House Committees Move Bills To Accomplish Stitt's Public Education Policy Goals

Feb 19, 2021

Credit Oklahoma Watch

Oklahoma House committees advanced legislation this week that would accomplish public education policy changes Gov. Kevin Stitt pushed in his state of the state address.

House Bill 2078 would change the statewide funding formula so initial allocations are based on districts’ average weighted attendance from the preceding school year, rather than letting them use the higher of the past two years.

Rep. Kyle Hilbert (R-Bristow) says the intent is funding schools for the students they actually have.

"Who's going to get hit the hardest from this change in law? It's going to be Epic. I mean, that's the school district specifically, and other virtual charter schools, because, I mean, we've seen their enrollment at all those schools grow a lot during that pandemic," Hilbert said.

Several Republican officials have adopted the term "ghost students" to describe public schools getting state funding for students that no longer attend, borrowing it from a criminal investigation of Epic Charter Schools. In Epic's case, the term described students the school enrolled but didn't teach, allegedly to inflate its enrollment to receive additional funding it wasn't entitled to.

The proposed funding formula change has not been welcomed by education groups in the state. They say districts need certainty to plan their budgets, and this change could make annual revenue much more volatile.

Cooperative Council for Oklahoma School Administration Executive Director Dr. Pam Deering was recently on the Oklahoma Education Association’s "friED OKra" podcast. Asked about the funding formula and potential changes, she said CCOSA has been and remains open to looking at improvements to the formula, but now is not the time to tweak it.

"I'll just be very frank. In a pandemic, you don't make these kinds of changes that will shift and redistribute money," Deering said.

Hilbert’s bill also raises the cap on the general fund carryover districts are allowed and waives fees for exceeding it the next two years. It passed the House Appropriations and Budget Committee on a 25–7 vote Thursday.

House Bill 2074 passed out of the Common Education Committee 11–3 on Tuesday. It would allow students up to two transfers per school year outside their district of residence, subject to capacity limits. School boards could also deny a student’s transfer request based on chronic absenteeism or disciplinary problems.

Rep. Brad Boles (R-Marlow) acknowledged the open transfer policy is more advantageous for families willing and able to drive their kids to school.

"But I think we're really cutting down a lot of the haves and have nots because now the have nots that can't afford to sell their house and move to another school that they want to go to can actually transfer," Boles said.

In a discussion related to the bill later in the week, Rep. Monroe Nichols (D-Tulsa) said an open transfer policy opens up the possibility high-achieving students will be pulled out of schools deemed to be failing.

"That leaves a share of kids there whose families have those social determinants that oftentimes are driving those educational outcomes, not necessarily the quality of the school. Don't you make it tougher, then, for those schools to be able to turn the corner, right?" Nichols said, noting the potential effect of the two bills in tandem.

HB2074 wouuld also require districts to make monthly reports on the number of transfer students they have and the number they can accept. The State Department of Education would have to publish that information on its website.

School districts would also have to make annual reports on transfer requests and denials.