Gov. Kevin Stitt is pushing for a more robust open transfer policy and structural changes to the state’s school funding formula, two significant education policies the governor believes will empower parents and help the state’s fastest-growing school systems.

On Monday, during his annual State of the State address, the first-term governor referenced both as goals for the new legislative session.

He also used the term “ghost students” to refer to the state funding schools receive for students who may no longer attend.

Schools currently receive state funding based on the highest enrollment total of the previous three years.

Stitt wants to see that changed to the enrollment count of the most recent year.

“It’s time for schools to be funded based on how many students they have now, not how many they had in the past,” Stitt said.

The term “ghost students” was most recently used by state investigators in claiming Epic virtual charter schools had inflated enrollment count in order to falsely receive more state funding, an allegation the school denies.

Gov. Kevin Stitt. BEN FELDER/The Frontier

But Stitt’s proposal would send more money to districts like Epic that are growing rapidly.

Schools with declining enrollment, including many rural and urban districts, would see a quicker funding decline.

Shawn Hime, executive director of the Oklahoma State School Boards Association, said the current funding formula helps schools with declining enrollment better handle the decrease.

“Let’s say (a school) loses 50 kids, they are not all going to all be from third-grade where you could cut two third-grade teachers,” Hime said. “They are going to be a few students in each class, so you can’t really make a huge reduction (in staff). You need some time to make those adjustments.”

Boise City High School. BEN FELDER/The Frontier

Hime also said the funding formula change could hurt schools that have lost students during the pandemic.

“Many schools have lost a large percentage of students, including pre-kindergarten and kindergarten students that they expect to return next August,” Hime said. “If we were to make this formula change those schools wouldn’t receive funding for those returning students.”

Stitt has focused on the pandemic’s disruption to schools in calling for families to have more choice on where to send their child to school.

Ryan Walters, Stitt’s secretary of education, said a more robust and consistent open transfer policy would allow more students to choose a public school that best fits their needs.

Ryan Walters, Gov. Kevin Stitt’s secretary of education, speaks during a Dec. 17, 2020, news conference at the state Capitol. BEN FELDER/The Frontier

“The governor wants a more transparent open transfer system so that if a student wants to go to another school, for whatever reason, we want to make sure that if that school has space that child has the opportunity to go there,” Walters said in an interview with The Frontier.

There are multiple bills in the House and Senate dealing with open transfer and Walters said details to be worked out include how to determine if a school is at capacity and what stipulations are in place for students with special needs or a disciplinary record. 

But the governor wants data on transfer approvals and rejections to be public, along with consistent standards across all districts, Walters said.

“The information needs to be out there on how many transfers were rejected, that way we can see when schools meet capacity and what is the need. You need to see why students are being turned away,” Walters said.

Gov. Kevin Stitt. BEN FELDER/The Frontier

School choice push

A former businessman who lacked policy or political experience, Stitt entered office in 2019 without a detailed education agenda beyond a pledge to increase teacher pay, his response to the walkout that was criticized by some as teachers had already won a salary increase but were now seeking a bump in classroom spending. 

What education experience the governor had largely involved private schools; Stitt’s children attend private schools and he has donated tens of thousands of dollars in recent years to private schools, including Regent Preparatory School in Tulsa and Positive Tomorrows, an Oklahoma City school for students experiencing homelessness. 

Stitt recently funneled tens of millions of dollars in federal COVID-19 relief funding to private school students, a move that drew criticism from teacher’s unions and Democrats.

“The governor is funneling pandemic relief money into the pockets of the wealthy,” said Alicia Priest, president of the Oklahoma Education Association.

But school choice advocates praised the governor’s actions and viewed it as a sign that he will find more ways to support private schools in the years to come.

“He has been consistent in his support (of school choice) and growing his understanding of the issue,” said Robert Ruiz, president at Scissortail Community Development Corporation and a supporter of school choice policies.

“It does seem like the timing might be right to try some big things and I think giving parents more choice will be a foundation of his agenda moving forward.”

Stitt has previously expressed support for using tax dollars to fund private school tuition, often called vouchers. But he did not reference the controversial measure in Monday’s address.

Students walk into an Oklahoma City school. BEN FELDER/The Frontier

He did continue to hammer schools that do not currently have in-person classes because of the pandemic.

“Can you imagine being a first grader and trying to learn to read on Zoom?” Stitt asked in his address.

“Distance learning is perfectly fine for some students, but when we force it on everyone, it widens achievement gaps and jeopardizes our future as a Top Ten state.”

Walters said Stitt has been particularly moved in recent months by meetings at his home with parents who shared struggles of juggling virtual learning.

Rep. Rhonda Baker, chair of the House education committee, believes school choice efforts could be boosted this year because of increased attention on parents wanting to choose an in-person learning option.

“There is momentum within education that has come from parents that were never engaged before who all of a sudden had a child that was at home,” said Baker, R-Yukon. “That’s really going to impact education discussions moving forward.”