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Mike Brake is a journalist and writer who recently authored a centennial history of Putnam City Schools. A former reporter at The Oklahoman (his coverage of the moon landing earned a front-page byline on July 21, 1969), he served as chief writer for Gov. Frank Keating and for Lt. Gov. and Congresswoman Mary Fallin. He has also served as an adjunct instructor at OSU-OKC, and currently serves as public information officer for Oklahoma County Commissioner Brian Maughan.

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When the Oklahoma State Board of Education ordered every public, charter, and virtual charter school in the state to close at least until April 6 in response to the coronavirus threat, that raised one interesting question: where would the money go?

Since a significant portion of school funding is the state aid that flows to each school on a per-pupil basis, those dollars would continue to arrive in school district coffers while the schools are closed. And one leading authority on school choice has a novel solution: refund part or all of those tax dollars to the parents and taxpayers.

“If you had a yearly gym membership and the gym was closed for a period of time, you would expect to have a refund for that period,” said Dr. Corey DeAngelis, director of school choice at the Reason Foundation. “To keep it simple, why not split the amount that would have gone to the schools 50-50 with the parents?”

Indeed, several colleges and universities which are forcing students to vacate student housing to stem the coronavirus outbreak are giving those students a partial refund for room and board.

“None of this is the schools’ fault. But it’s not the families’ fault, either.”

—Dr. Corey DeAngelis

DeAngelis noted that while school expenses will decline while they are closed since there will be lower utility bills and other costs, many parents will face financial burdens (meals, daycare costs, etc.) while their children are at home. The Oklahoma State Department of Education (OSDE) said it had applied for and received some waivers allowing schools to continue serving meals to children under the federal school lunch program, but it was not clear how all eligible children would receive those meals.

“While the schools are closing, families are having to adjust as well, and for many of them that adjustment is going to be severe,” DeAngelis said. He noted that families with single parents or two working parents could face substantial financial hardship if one parent has to stay home with smaller children.

In addition, if schools are closed for an extended period, children will lose out on a large portion of the instructional year. Oklahoma schools, which are required by law to provide a minimum of 180 instructional days per year, may be able to make up the projected lost time now, but if the closure is extended beyond the current one week of spring break and two weeks of classes, it may be necessary to grant waivers to allow a shorter overall school year.

In that case, a 50-50 financial split with parents would allow them to purchase homeschooling material to keep their children up to speed on academics during a lengthy break in classes.

“If Oklahoma had Education Savings Accounts (ESAs) this issue would be more easily addressed,” DeAngelis said. ESAs allow parents to deploy the dollars attached to their children in schools of their choice, either public or private.

Heritage Foundation scholar Lindsey Burke recommended this week that, given the many coronavirus-related school closures, states should “restructure per-pupil K-12 education funding in the form of emergency or temporary education savings accounts for families of children with special needs, so that they may continue to receive the therapy they need.” 

DeAngelis said he was puzzled by Oklahoma’s decision to close virtual charter schools along with traditional public schools, since they are based on at-home instruction already and would seem to pose no public health threat.

He noted that at least one virtual school in Arizona and a national one, K12.com, are offering their course material free to any student sent home by a coronavirus closing.

“None of this is the schools’ fault, but it is not the families’ fault either,” DeAngelis said. “States should be considering sharing some of the dollars attached to education with those families during the closure.”

Steffie Corcoran, executive director of communications for the OSDE, said schools not providing the minimum 180 days (or 1,080 hours) of instruction in a school year would be penalized a portion of their state aid. “The State Board of Education can waive the mandatory reduction of state aid of a school district not meeting the requirements of the calendar year,” she said, “when conditions beyond the control of school authorities make the maintenance of the calendar year term impossible.”

The board is expected to consider such waivers on March 25, she said.

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