Governor considering stimulus funds for private schools

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Gov. Kevin Stitt speaks to the media on Friday in Oklahoma City. BEN FELDER/The Frontier

Gov. Kevin Stitt, who will receive nearly $40 million in emergency federal funds for education, said he may use some of the money for private school scholarships. 

The stimulus funds are part of the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security (CARES) Act, which also includes nearly $161 million for school districts. 

On Friday, Stitt said he may spend his education funds on the Oklahoma Equal Opportunity Education Scholarship Act, which gives tax credits to individuals and corporations donating towards tuition for private school students. 

“We are looking at Equal Opportunity Scholarship funds to be able to backfill some of those,” Stitt said when asked what ideas he was considering. 

Stitt also said he might use funds for Advance Placement programs in rural communities where access to technology is not as prevalent. Because school buildings are closed for the rest of the academic year, AP tests will be administered online. 

Stitt spoke with U.S. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos this week and said her advice was to “focus on the kids.” 

“Governors have the opportunity to truly rethink and transform the approach to education during this national emergency and ensure learning continues,” DeVos said in a statement.

Officials with the state Department of Education have had preliminary conversations with Stitt’s office about the funds and are expected to make a proposal soon but it will not include the two ideas mentioned by the governor, the department told The Frontier on Friday.

School districts will have great flexibility in how they can use the $161 million being sent by the federal government, including on new expenses caused by COVID-19 such as distance learning resources, mental health support and cleaning supplies. 

But some believe districts should save most of the money to cover potential state cuts. 

“I think the biggest issue for districts right now is the unknown of what the (state) budget will look like going forward,” said Shawn Hime, executive director of the Oklahoma State School Boards Association.

With businesses closed, unemployment reaching record levels and Oklahomans urged to stay home, state tax collections have significantly declined. State lawmakers say reserve funds should cover the shortfall until June but Stitt has said state agencies should be prepared for a 3 percent cut next fiscal year. 

OSSBA has advised its member school districts to consider the impact of a 5 percent cut. 

The funding for school districts will be 83 percent of their Title 1 allocation, which are federal funds based on a district’s poverty level. Title 1 funds have stipulations on how the money can be spent, but the stimulus funds will not have those requirements. 

Oklahoma City and Tulsa schools could receive more than $16 million, based on Fiscal Year 2019 Title 1 allocations, although state education officials say it’s still unknown what the exact amount will be. 

For much of the last decade Oklahoma experienced the nation’s largest per-student cuts that caused schools to cut programs and reduce staff. 

In recent years the state Legislature approved funding increases, including a pay raise for teachers. 

Ten percent of the $161 million going to schools can be kept by the state Department of Education for school grants and other programs. 

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Ben Felder

Based in Oklahoma City, Ben Felder joined The Frontier in 2019 and covers education and politics. He previously covered education and government as an investigative reporter at The Oklahoman before becoming the newspaper’s news director. Felder can be reached at ben@readfrontier.com. Follow him on Twitter @benfelder_okc
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