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Changes in school enrollment affect funding amid pandemic

Posted at 4:18 PM, Feb 24, 2021
and last updated 2021-02-25 08:39:09-05

TULSA, Okla. — Parents and educators are still settling into the "new normal" for their students. The pandemic is not only dictating how students are in school, but also bringing significant changes to districts enrollment and funding.

Brooke Rogers sits at the kitchen table with her daughter Nora. This isn't the second-grade experience she expected. Instead of being in a classroom with her friends, she's learning from home online with Epic Charter Schools.

“She loves it," Rogers said. "She’s learning so much.”

Rogers originally planned to send her daughter to school in-person at Union Public Schools.

“Then once I heard all the board meetings and it just made me feel really uneasy," she said. "And I was like, if I’m going to do virtual then it’s going to be with Epic because they’ve done this for many years.”

She isn’t alone in sending her child to Epic. Enrollment at Epic’s two online charter schools doubled since last school year.

According to data from the Oklahoma State Department of Education, Epic Blended Learning Center jumped from nearly 11,000 students before the pandemic to more than 23,000 now. The Epic One-on-One school soared from about 17,000 students pre-pandemic to more than 35,000.

The growth led Epic to hire nearly 900 additional teachers.

“We started noticing a skyrocket in enrollment," said Shelly Hickman, assistant superintendent at Epic Charter Schools. "I would say it started occurring late June early July. I think at that time parents were probably coming to the realization that this school year was going to be non-traditional.”

As enrollment at charter schools climb, traditional public schools are seeing enrollment fall.

Data from OSDE shows Union Public Schools lost just over five percent of students. Broken Arrow lost a little more than four percent. Tulsa Public Schools lost more than seven percent of students, or about three thousand students.

“We believe that there’s a huge impact due to the pandemic," said Jorge Robles, chief operations officer of TPS. "Because it’s under-enrollment entering grades as opposed to people leaving.”

Educators said much of the drop in enrollment comes from pre-k and kindergarten students waiting an extra year before attending school.

“Whether students have stayed out of all traditional public schools or even virtual schools in the kindergarten and pre-k year, that’s very unusual," said State Superintendent Joy Hofmeister.

Enrollment changes impact funding.

When this year’s mid-year adjustment came out, traditional public schools lost millions.

According to OSDE, Union lost $2.9 million. Broken Arrow is down $5.18 million. And TPS saw an $8.8 million funding cut.

“Although we’re expecting it, it still didn’t make it normal," said Nolberto Delgadillo, chief financial officer for TPS. "It was abnormal considering the circumstances, but we adjusted. We have a resilient district, a resilient team to be able to come together and figure out the opportunities to leverage that.”

Meanwhile, Epic’s additional students brought with them a significant funding increase.

According to OSDE, the Epic Blended Learning Center saw an increase of $62.9 million. Epic One-on-One gained $92.9 million. That adds up to close to $156 million in additional funding.

Hickman said, it's needed. Especially because the school doesn’t receive any local funding, just state and federal.

“Our overall per-pupil funding is very much below the state average," Hickman said. "We get a little bit over six-thousand per student, but the state average of per-pupil funding is over nine-thousand.”

Because the school’s enrollment increased so dramatically in a short period of time, it struggled to cover costs for students during the first semester.

“We had to pinch every penny that we had to get to mid-term," Hickman said. "And we had to take out $25 million in loans because those students also needed laptops and they needed connectivity and they needed digital curriculum.”

Meanwhile, TPS said it was able to plan for the change and didn’t lose any programs. Federal stimulus dollars helped keep it going.

“I think that we were in a fortunate space to be able to plan and leverage the federal stimulus dollars, leverage some of the foresight we had to be ready to absorb this," Delgadillo said. "And therefore to continue to support our workforce and prepare ourselves and springboard us into next year.”

Speaking of next school year, educators believe the numbers will shift around again as some students learning online go back to in-person schools.
Something Rogers said is a possibility for her daughter.

“Eventually I want her to go back to school," she said. "I think the socialization for kids is so important. I think they learn off of other kids. I think it has been a great experience for us, but I also do think there are things she’s been missing by not being at school with friends.”

In his state of the state address this year, Governor Kevin Stitt called for changes to the state education funding formula to eliminate what he calls "ghost students" or students counted in multiple districts after switching.

State Superintendent Hofmeister cautions against it.

“It is an anomaly in this year to see the kind of seismic shift in enrollment," she said. "And it really underscores why we wouldn’t want to do radical changes to a funding formula that’s been in place, working really well for decades.”

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