Gov. Kevin Stitt signs controversial education funding change

Carmen Forman
Oklahoman

Despite opposition from the state’s top education official and many public school advocates, Gov. Kevin Stitt signed a controversial education funding measure that will have school funding more closely follow students

Stitt on Wednesday also signed a bill to expand transfers between public schools after the Oklahoma Legislature gave final approval to both major education reforms earlier in the day. 

In a signing ceremony with legislative leaders and many Republican members from both chambers, Stitt said the bills bring monumental changes for Oklahoma children and parents. Stitt called for the education changes in his State of the State speech this year. 

"We delivered the most transformative education reforms, we believe, in state history," he said. "We are truly transforming the way that we will educate kids in Oklahoma for future generations."

House Speaker Charles McCall and Senate Pro Tempore Greg Treat watch Wednesday as Gov. Kevin Stitt signs HB 2078 and SB 783 in a ceremony at the state Capitol.

Impact on Oklahoma's rural schools

However, State schools Superintendent Joy Hofmeister, who did not attend the bill signing, warned the school funding measure could have a negative impact on rural schools and students by removing safeguards that ensure stability during volatile shifts in the economy.

Schoolchildren will lose when schools are forced to make sudden cuts to services, she said.

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"Today marks one step forward and two steps back for public education," Hofmeister said. "While Senate Bill 783 holds real promise for many families and students, House Bill 2078 unfortunately compromises any gains that would come with open transfers.

"Children in rural Oklahoma deserve to have a high quality education and HB 2078 potentially jeopardizes that."

How did HB 2078 change Oklahoma school funding?

Stitt signed House Bill 2078, which passed the Oklahoma Senate on a vote of 27-19, with 11 Republicans and eight Democrats voting against.

The proposal incited fierce debate and a slew of questions on the Senate floor. 

“You know it’s a big day when bills pass off the floor, and the governor has them on his desk ready to sign that afternoon," said Senate Pro Tem Greg Treat, R-Oklahoma City. 

HB 2078 will 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, which supporters say will allow districts to carry over more federal stimulus funds to offset any state funding reductions.

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Currently, the amount of state funding a school district receives at the start of the school year is based on its highest enrollment count from the two preceding years. Current school year enrollment is factored in by January in a mid-year adjustment.

When students change schools, it creates the possibility that their current and former districts both receive funds for the same child. Stitt and Republican lawmakers have dubbed these kids “ghost students.” 

The proposed change comes as virtual school enrollment, especially at Epic Charter Schools, has grown as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic. But critics say shifting the funding formula could destabilize schools that are struggling to keep students because of the pandemic. 

Oklahoma lawmakers object to education measures

Sen. Jo Anna Dossett, D-Tulsa, a former teacher, said she received hundreds of emails and phone calls from parents of public school students who oppose the bill. 

“One thing that my colleagues and I have experienced over the last month or so was an outpouring of opposition to this bill,” she said. 

She also noted that most Oklahoma public education groups opposed the measure.

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Those opposed included the Oklahoma State School Boards Association, Organization of Rural Oklahoma Schools, United Suburban Schools Association, Parent Legislative Action Committee and Oklahoma Education Association. 

"It is disappointing because no school district — rural, urban or suburban — requested nor advocated for this bill," said OEA President Alicia Priest. 

The State Chamber, which holds significant sway at the Capitol, supported the bill. 

The state paid for 55,475 more students than attended Oklahoma public schools this year, at a cost of at least an extra $187.5 million.

Measure could hurt large districts

Senate author Sen. Zack Taylor, R-Seminole, said the legislation was borne out of a working group that met over the summer and will offer a more real-time look at school enrollment. 

“The effect on all schools will be a mixed bag,” he said. “There will be some that benefit and some that do not. It will depend upon whether their enrollment is increasing or decreasing.”

Districts with declining enrollment are likely to see their funding drop under the new law.

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Large urban districts, like Oklahoma City, and rural schools that chronically lose students are likely to feel the brunt of the new law, especially if more families use open transfers to leave.

Oklahoma City Public Schools estimates the legislation could result in an $8 million to $10 million budget reduction. 

The changes will take effect in the 2022-2023 school year. 

Open transfer extended

Stitt also signed Senate Bill 783, from Sen. Adam Pugh, R-Edmond, that extends public school transfers. 

The bill keeps the transfer window open year-round and limits a school district's ability to deny transfer students.

The measure empowers boards of education to adopt policies to determine the number of transfer students each school district can accept per grade level. The policy must be posted on a school district's website and reported to the State Department of Education. 

Throughout the pandemic, Stitt said he heard from numerous parents that wanted their kids to be able to attend school in-person even if their districts had shifted to virtual learning.

"Now, Oklahoma students and parents will never again be denied the chance to go to the school that best fits their needs," he said. 

Transfer students would be prohibited from transferring schools more than twice in one school year. 

SB 783 passed the House on a vote of 65-30.