A boy stands against the wall in the main hallway of Cesar Chavez Elementary in Oklahoma City on the first day of school in 2018. Gov. Kevin Stitt and Republican lawmakers say they support changing the way school funding is distributed to avoid dedicating money to "ghost students." [The Oklahoman Archives]

The Oklahoman Archives / The Oklahoman

What exactly are ‘ghost students’? There’s more than one definition in Oklahoma

  • Robby Korth
  • Nuria Martinez-Keel

Merriam-Webster doesn’t define “ghost student.”

The dictionary would have a difficult time anyway. There are several competing definitions in Oklahoma.

Gov. Kevin Stitt referred to “ghost students” in his State of the State address last week as students who no longer attend a district, but their former school still receives state funds as if they did.

Stitt’s use of the phrase might have come as a surprise to some. It first entered Oklahoma’s lexicon in July 2019 from court records documenting a criminal investigation of Epic Charter Schools.

Now, “ghost students” has entered an entirely different context, and one that could have a significant impact on school funding.

Money for public schools is distributed per student based on a district’s highest enrollment from the past three years. The governor supports using only the most recent year’s enrollment count.

That design has been in state law since 1992, said Carolyn Thompson, chief of government affairs for the Oklahoma State Department of Education.

“It’s really a bit of a misnomer to call these students ‘ghost students’ because it’s something that is in our state law and has been there since the early ’90s,” Thompson said.

OCPA’s ghost students

The Oklahoma Council of Public Affairs, a conservative think tank that supports school choice, repurposed the phrase “ghost students” shortly after it appeared in court documents for the first time.

“Many traditional public schools, all across Oklahoma, are receiving funding to educate similar ‘ghost students’ who no longer attend those schools,” OCPA’s Ray Carter wrote in a July 2019 article. “And, for those schools, the payments are not only legal, but the result of deliberate design.”

Stitt brought this definition to the forefront in his Feb. 1 State of the State address.

“Say you lived in Tulsa and moved to a new district to make sure your kids could go to school in person. Your kids could be counted by both districts,” Stitt said. “They’re called ‘ghost students.’ We’re sending money to districts to educate kids who don’t go there, and that’s simply not fair.”

More than 55,000 “ghost students” exist in the state’s education funding formula, the governor said. Data from the Oklahoma State Department of Education confirms this number.

Using the highest three-year enrollment for every district, the state paid for 742,987 students this year, even though the actual number of students enrolled in public schools is 687,512. That’s a difference of 55,475.

After adjusting for the first nine weeks of public school enrollment, the state allocated $3,380.83 per student. That means more than $187.5 million in this year’s education funding formula could be attributed to students who have since moved to another district. The governor claimed Oklahoma pays “close to $200 million” for “students who don’t exist.”

The number of “ghost students” more than tripled this school year, state Department of Education data shows.

In Fiscal Year 2019, the state paid for about 15,000 more students than the actual number attending public schools, and in FY 2020 it was more than 16,000.

The pandemic caused an unusually high amount of student mobility. Virtual charter schools saw their enrollment grow exponentially as families sought an alternative to in-person education. Epic Charter Schools became the largest school district in Oklahoma when it doubled in size to nearly 60,000 students.

But district finances remained stable because their funding was based on enrollment levels from previous years, said Thompson, the state Department of Education’s chief of government affairs.

The three-year window gives districts foresight to make staffing and budgetary decisions before a school year begins. It also prevents sudden layoffs and cuts when a school sees a drop in enrollment.

She said knowing how many students attended in the past is critical for preparation.

“It’s really there to provide a level of financial stability to districts,” Thompson said.

Some lawmakers, though, view this budgeting process as a financial inefficiency.

Senate President Pro Tempore Greg Treat said there is “strong support” among legislators for limiting the funding formula from a three-year enrollment high to only the most recent student count.

Treat, R-Oklahoma City, said Thursday his caucus hasn’t tallied how many senators would vote for the measure.

“There is a lot of support for counting students that are truly in the classroom and not funding a student twice in two different districts,” Treat said. “We’re interested.”

Oklahoma Secretary of Education Ryan Walters said the governor’s office is optimistic legislation on this issue could pass in the state Legislature this year. The governor’s office has been working for weeks on these reforms with House and Senate leadership, along with committees in both chambers.

“We have been working hand in hand with the House and Senate to improve our education system and are hopeful we can work together to put our students first,” Walters said.

Epic’s ghost students

The phrase “ghost students” first made headlines in July 2019 after it appeared in a search warrant filed by the Oklahoma State Bureau of Investigation.

While asking a judge for permission to seize a teacher’s computer, the OSBI alleged Epic had been illegally inflating its enrollment with dozens of students who received little to no instruction from the virtual charter school. Epic denies any illegality in its student counts.

It was these children, whom Epic reportedly enrolled but didn’t teach, that the OSBI called “ghost students.”

Investigators said these students were enrolled in Epic while also attending private schools or while being home schooled. Their families reportedly had no intention for their children to be full-time students at Epic.

The OSBI alleged Epic’s co-founders, Ben Harris and David Chaney, persuaded parents to enroll their children anyway in exchange for money for extracurricular activities.

“Ben Harris and David Chaney enticed ghost students to enroll in Epic by offering each student an annual learning fund ranging from $800 to $1,000,” court documents from the OSBI state. “The parents of many of the homeschool students admitted they enrolled their children in Epic to receive the $800 learning fund without any intent to receive instruction from Epic.”

With state education funds distributed per pupil, the OSBI alleged Epic raked in taxpayer dollars from these extra enrollees. But investigators said Epic didn’t educate them like full-time students, if at all. Some students were enrolled in Epic without their families ever knowing, according to court records.

Epic called the investigation a “coordinated effort” to attack a fast-growing school delivering an unconventional method of education. The OSBI investigation is still ongoing, and no one has been charged with any crime.

This story was prepared by The Oklahoman and StateImpact Oklahoma and distributed through the Oklahoma Media Center project “Changing Course: Education and COVID.” The Oklahoma Media Center is a collaboration of 18 Oklahoma newsrooms that includes print, broadcast and digital partners.