Gov. Kevin Stitt’s plan to use a small portion of the state’s federal COVID funding to address the education needs of some students—primarily homeless children, low-income (and typically minority) students, and teens recovering from addiction—has drawn both praise and criticism.
The Oklahoma Education Association (OEA), the state affiliate of the National Education Association (NEA), has been among the most vocal critics. But some claims made by the union are contradicted by publicly available data.
After Stitt’s announcement of his plan, OEA President Alicia Priest issued a statement, declaring, “Gov. Stitt had $40 million to help support Oklahoma schools, which have been overcoming major challenges to feed, educate, and support children in a time of great fear. In the end, he opted to spend only half of those dollars on public schools.”
She then added, “The governor is using this crisis as a way to funnel emergency funds that our schools desperately need to new, unproven nonprofits and to private schools, which have zero academic accountability. Public schools serve 91% of students but are receiving 50% of the emergency funding.”
In reality, the share of Oklahoma’s COVID funding going to public schools is far higher than the 50-percent figure cited by Priest.
Stitt’s plan provides $10 million for his “Stay in School” initiative, which will provide up to $6,500 apiece to around 1,500 Oklahoma families. The program is targeted to low-income families who have children in private schools.
In his announcement, Stitt noted that Oklahoma received $360 million in federal funding to cover the costs of education response to COVID-19.
Corey A. DeAngelis, director of school choice at the Reason Foundation, noted on Twitter that the share of funding used for some Oklahoma students to attend private schools is only a small share of the state total.
“The U.S. Dept. of Education allocated $360 million to Oklahoma to respond to COVID-19,” DeAngelis tweeted. “The state allocated $18 million of that funding for these two initiatives. It’s only 5% of the total allotment.”
DeAngelis’ 5-percent estimate included not only the $10 million allocated for Stitt’s “Stay in School” initiative, but also $8 million for Stitt’s “Bridge the Gap Digital Wallet,” an initiative that will provide low-income families with $1,500 grants to purchase curriculum content, tutoring services, and technology. That program is available to up to 5,000 low-income families across Oklahoma who meet income eligibility, not just students in private schools.
The OEA’s attack on $10 million in state support for low-income students comes as Oklahoma Department of Education records show public schools received nearly $7.9 billion in total funding in 2019.
Officials from several private schools whose students are among the likely beneficiaries of Stitt’s plan have praised the governor’s efforts. All of them serve low-income and at-risk populations.
Positive Tomorrows serves homeless children in Oklahoma City. Crossover Preparatory Academy serves mostly working-class minority male students in grades six through nine in north Tulsa. Cristo Rey OKC Catholic High School serves low-income, predominantly minority students. Mission Academy High School helps reclaim teens from substance abuse and addiction by providing a sober high school and recovery support.
Although Priest claimed those private schools have “zero academic accountability,” the public schools where many of those private-school students would otherwise be sent—in Oklahoma City and Tulsa—generate some of the worst academic results in the state.
In 2019, state tests results showed that at least 61 percent of all public-school students in Oklahoma were performing below grade level in English Language Arts in every grade tested, at least 57 percent were below grade level in math in every grade tested, and the share performing below grade level in science started at 60 percent in the two grades tested.
Things were worse in Oklahoma County, where there were at least 18 schools where 80 percent of third graders, or more, were below grade level in English subjects, with 97 percent of students at one school performing below grade level. In at least 19 schools in Oklahoma County that year, more than 60 percent of third graders were at least two-grades behind in English subjects.
In 2017, there were 12 schools in the Tulsa Public Schools (TPS) district that had entire grades where no student tested proficient on state tests. Only 13 TPS school sites had at least half of students performing at the proficiency level in tested subjects that year. The district operates more than 60 elementary, middle, and high school sites, not including alternative schools.
While the NEA/OEA, which has endorsed candidates such as Joe Biden and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez in presidential and congressional races, bashed Stitt’s plan, the governor’s proposal has received strong support from other groups and leaders.
Former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush tweeted that because of Stitt’s “bold leadership” the new education initiatives “will provide relief and stability to Oklahoma families and schools during these uncertain times.”
The reform group ExcelinEd tweeted a thank you to Stitt for his “innovative and student-centered plan for investing CARES Act funding to allow students from diverse backgrounds to access the quality resources they need in order to continue their education journey amid these uncertain times.”
John Schilling, president of the American Federation for Children, which supports school choice, said Stitt “has made Oklahoma a national leader when it comes to bold, innovative public policy.” Three days after Stitt unveiled his plan for COVID education funding, another governor followed suit when South Carolina Gov. Henry McMaster announced a similar plan for his state.