In an announcement that gained praise from national education leaders, Gov. Kevin Stitt announced Friday he will use millions of dollars in federal COVID funds to increase educational opportunity across Oklahoma, boosting financial resources for students, families, and schools across the state.
Among other things, Stitt’s plan will boost online course offerings in rural schools, close the digital divide for low-income families by assisting with technology purchases, and provide scholarship assistance so low-income students who already attend private schools can continue doing so.
“These programs will allow for students and families of diverse backgrounds to access the quality resources they need in order to continue their education journey amid the COVID-19 pandemic,” Stitt said. “These are unprecedented times, but we can’t let our kids fall further behind academically. They are our priority, and we will do everything we can to ensure they have the tools they need to succeed in their academic endeavors.”
“We are happy to see Governor Stitt provide grants to these families to assist with their students’ learning during COVID-19.”
—Joe Dorman, CEO of the Oklahoma Institute for Child Advocacy
Stitt’s plan was hailed as one of the most significant and innovative uses of federal COVID funds in the nation.
“With this plan, Governor Stitt has made Oklahoma a national leader when it comes to bold, innovative public policy,” said John Schilling, president of the American Federation for Children, which supports school choice. “He is one of the first governors to announce his intention to help children in lower-income families realize the potential benefits through prudent use of federal COVID funding. The positive impact generated in the lives of those children will be felt for years and generations to come. We hope more states will follow the governor’s lead in prioritizing the needs of all families and children.”
Stitt’s plan will use $30 million from the Governor’s Emergency Education Relief (GEER) Fund, authorized by the federal Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security (CARES) Act, to pay for three new programs. GEER funds represent a portion of total federal COVID-19 funding provided to the state of Oklahoma and are controlled by the governor. Oklahoma received $360 million total in federal funding for Oklahoma’s public education systems to respond to the COVID-19 pandemic, of which $39.9 million was directed to the GEER Fund.
Thirty million dollars will be divided between three new education initiatives: Learn Anywhere Oklahoma, Bridge the Gap Digital Wallet, and Stay in School Funds.
Learn Anywhere Oklahoma
Learn Anywhere Oklahoma will provide school districts and families access to advanced and diverse coursework, digitally. The $12 million initiative will allow schools to access digital content, including Advanced Placement courses, across grades K-12. Additionally, the funds will allow schools to provide access to online content with a teacher of record virtually.
The program is expected to allow schools to offer coursework, particularly in rural districts, that would otherwise be unavailable. Stitt’s release said the program would help equalize opportunities for all Oklahoma kids, no matter where they live or their socioeconomic status.
“During these unprecedented times, while we must take the necessary precautions to slow the spread of the virus and keep our vulnerable populations safe, we must also prioritize our students’ learning. Learn Anywhere OK accomplishes both goals,” Stitt said. “Additionally, should an outbreak occur, this content will allow learning to continue in a distance learning format.”
Learn Anywhere OK will be offered through the Oklahoma Supplemental Online Course Program (OSOCP), which will also provide professional development to schools.
Digital content will be available soon at LearnAnywhereOK.org.
Bridge the Gap Digital Wallet
Bridge the Gap Digital Wallet will provide low-income families with grants to purchase curriculum content, tutoring services, and technology. This program will provide $1,500 grants to more than 5,000 low-income families.
“The governor’s decision to use federal funds to help these children continue attending our school is literally life-changing and perhaps even life-saving.”
—Susan Agel, President/CEO of Positive Tomorrows
“As our students face disruptions from COVID-19 and schools turn to distance learning, we must ensure all Oklahoma students have the supplies necessary to access virtual courses and curriculum,” Stitt said. “By giving families these funds, we are empowering them to choose what materials are most necessary to make their children successful academically.”
In total, $8 million is proposed to go toward these grants.
Joe Dorman, a former Democratic state lawmaker who is now CEO for the Oklahoma Institute for Child Advocacy (OICA), praised the Bridge the Gap Digital Wallet program.
“We are happy to see Governor Stitt provide grants to these families to assist with their students’ learning during COVID-19,” Dorman said. “These students need these types of resources to ensure they can be successful. It is crucial as a state we find ways to assist our students during this difficult time.”
Every Kid Counts Oklahoma (EKCO) will be awarding grants to families on a first-come, first-serve basis.
“Every Kid Counts Oklahoma is excited to partner with Governor Stitt to provide these education grants to our neediest families,” said Ryan Walters, CEO of EKCO. “It is imperative that all Oklahoma students have access to quality virtual learning experiences during these uncertain times, and we are glad to help provide them with this new resource to do just that.”
More information about the grants will be announced soon at EveryKidCountsOK.org.
Stay in School Funds
Stay in School Funds will help to stabilize all of Oklahoma’s education system and reduce Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACEs) by providing temporary funds to students currently attending independent schools whose continued attendance is threatened by the financial fallout of COVID-19.
“We have great private schools in Oklahoma that serve homeless children and children living in poverty,” Stitt said. “Assisting those families will be our first priority and greatest focus, followed closely by helping families who have suffered severe financial hardship from COVID-19’s impact on employment and job opportunities.”
The $10 million initiative will allot funds to low-income families who have suffered a COVID-19-related job loss or a demonstrated economic impact due to COVID-19-related factors. More than 1,500 Oklahoma families will be able to access $6,500 apiece.
“These children are already living with great personal uncertainty and hardship,” Stitt said. “To force children from those families to uproot to entirely new schools, separated from their friends and educational support system, will only compound ACEs for many of them. The Stay in School Funds will provide greater stability to those children and reduce the associated trauma they face from COVID-19.”
Officials with several private schools that serve low-income and at-risk populations praised the program.
“The children who attend Positive Tomorrows are homeless, so they didn’t have extensive financial resources before COVID-19 and the pandemic certainly didn’t increase opportunity for their families,” said Susan Agel, President/CEO of Positive Tomorrows. “The governor’s decision to use federal funds to help these children continue attending our school is literally life-changing and perhaps even life-saving, because we not only provide education but also a wide range of services, ranging from clothing to cleaning supplies to emotional support. With this program, Governor Stitt is making wise use of our tax dollars by investing it in our most precious resource: Oklahoma’s children.”
“For many families, Crossover Preparatory has been a literal answer to prayer,” said Philip Abode, Crossover Prep executive director. “The young men served by this school do not have access to finances that will pay their entire tuition without help, but many of the people who support our school are now struggling with their own financial challenges due to COVID-19. With the Stay in School Funds, Governor Stitt is filling the gap. He’s investing not just in education, but in changing lives and charting a better course for the future of north Tulsa.”
Crossover Preparatory Academy serves mostly working-class minority male students in grades six through nine in Tulsa.
Chip Carter, president of Cristo Rey OKC Catholic High School, which serves many low-income minority students, also welcomed news of the program.
“Cristo Rey OKC opens the door to a brighter future for children, which is why many of my families are so concerned about the financial stress caused by COVID-19,” Carter said. “This program helps keep that door of opportunity open, allowing our students to stay in our school and continue to get a quality education and career skills. We greatly appreciate Governor Stitt’s willingness to take a stand on behalf of Oklahoma children and their families.”
J.D. Fennell, executive director of Mission Academy High School, which helps reclaim teens from substance abuse and addiction by providing a sober high school and recovery support, said the Stay in School Funds will help alter the course trajectory of teens’ lives.
“Our work at Mission Academy combines addiction recovery and education, and it literally saves lives,” Fennell said. “The scholarships the governor is providing will help our students continue on the path of sobriety while continuing their education, rather than being placed back in the school environments where their struggles first began and their very lives are at stake with temptations around every corner. The families we serve greatly appreciate the Governor Stitt’s leadership and support.”
The Oklahoma Private School Accrediting Commission (OPSAC) has been requested to oversee the distribution of emergency educational relief funding to these families. Families will apply and will complete an eligibility form.
Families can begin applying for the funds on August 1. More information about the program will be announced soon at opsac.org.
Stitt said he and Superintendent of Public Instruction Joy Hofmeister are also working on assessing the PPE and sanitation needs for school districts across the state to help students, teachers, and staff return safely to the classroom.