Ray Carter | April 21, 2020

Amid millions for K-12 schools, lobbyist group opposes aid for private sector

Ray Carter

The Oklahoma State School Board Association (OSSBA), a lobbying organization for state-run K-12 schools, has declared its opposition to the provision of some federal aid to families with children in private schools, declaring education providers in the private sector are not facing “a pandemic-related emergency.”

The OSSBA’s opposition comes despite the fact that a portion of the federal aid in question was provided explicitly to support private schools during the COVID-19 shutdown, despite the fact that more than $160 million has been provided for traditional public schools in Oklahoma, and despite the fact that public schools have largely been shielded from the financial impact of the COVID-19 shutdown thus far.

When Congress passed the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security (CARES) Act, the measure included provisions that benefit education providers in Oklahoma, including the Elementary and Secondary School Emergency Relief Fund and the Governor’s Emergency Education Relief Fund.

According to the Congressional Research Service, Oklahoma will receive $160.9 million for its share of the Elementary and Secondary School Emergency Relief Fund, which will pay to offset many COVID-related expenses at public schools, and $39.8 million for the Governor’s Emergency Education Relief Fund.

According to the Oklahoma State Department of Education, the state’s share of Elementary and Secondary School Emergency Relief Fund payments is expected to be available by April 24 and will then go to school districts “within a matter of days.”

The Governor’s Emergency Education Relief Fund payments, which represent only a fraction of the amount given to schools through the Elementary and Secondary School Emergency Relief Fund, may be distributed more broadly.

Gov. Kevin Stitt recently referenced the possibility of using a share of those funds to assist families whose children attend private schools thanks to the Oklahoma Equal Opportunity Education Scholarship Act. That law provides tax credits to those who donate to scholarship-granting organizations as well as those donating to programs that serve traditional public schools.

Most students benefiting from the Oklahoma Equal Opportunity Education Scholarship Act are from working-class families or have special needs.

In response, the OSSBA declared that the scholarship program and its beneficiaries do “not have a pandemic-related emergency.” In similar fashion, the state chapter of the National Education Association, the Oklahoma Education Association, tweeted that Stitt was going to “spend COVID-19 emergency funds on vouchers for the wealthy.”

(The majority of the families served by the tax-credit scholarship program have working-class incomes, according to public reports.)

However, unemployment numbers have surged dramatically in Oklahoma during the COVID-19 shutdown, depriving thousands of families of income. Many businesses, large and small, are now struggling, including entities that previously contributed to tax-credit scholarships and financially supported both private schools and many lower-income students who attend those schools. And private schools, like most private entities, are being buffeted by the economic upheaval caused by the government response to COVID-19. Officials have already announced that St. Mary’s Catholic School, a 113-year-old institution serving pre-K through eighth grade students in Lawton, will not reopen next year.

Department of Education Says ‘Non-public’ Schools Eligible
Government officials have noted financial support of private schools during the shutdown was one of the goals of the CARES Act.

release issued by the U.S. Department of Education explicitly states that the $40 million provided to Oklahoma through the Governor’s Emergency Education Relief is “an extraordinarily flexible ‘emergency block grant’ designed to enable governors to decide how best to meet the needs of students, schools (including charter schools and non-public schools), postsecondary institutions, and other education-related organizations.”

The provisions of the CARES Act that benefit private schools did not pass without public scrutiny. The National Catholic Education Association noted that, on March 24, “there were efforts to strip out private schools from any participation in the bill,” but that effort was rejected.

The provision of aid to some private-school families or private schools in the K-12 realm is in keeping with other provisions of the CARES Act. The federal law included financial aid to stabilize many private colleges during the COVID event, including the University of Tulsa, Oklahoma Baptist University, Oklahoma Christian University, and Oklahoma City University, according to information released by the federal Department of Education.

Officials have emphasized the need to stabilize all forms of business as much as possible during the government-ordered shutdown to prevent ripple effects that will further disrupt society. Advocates have noted preservation of existing private schools indirectly aids traditional public schools.

“During times of economic downturn, private schools are historically at risk of closure,” wrote Cara Candal, director of educational opportunity at the Foundation for Excellence in Education, in a recent column. “A flood of private school students returning to public schools could overwhelm—even cripple—public schools as they struggle to recover from this crisis.”

That potential exists in Oklahoma, where 38,949 students attended a private school this year. Complaints of overcrowded classrooms in Oklahoma previously occurred when facing far smaller increases in student population. The largest increase in total public-school students in any of the last five years was around 7,000.

Research done by the nonpartisan organization EdChoice indicates that if 10 percent of students now in Oklahoma private schools are shifted to traditional public schools next year, it will cost the traditional system an additional $21 million after accounting for state and local tax sources. The share of the $40 million in Governor’s Emergency Education Relief funding that could go to Oklahoma private school families may be much less than that amount, indicating Stitt’s proposal could reduce taxpayer costs.

If 30 percent of students are shifted from private to public schools as a result of the COVID shutdown’s financial fallout, EdChoice estimates it will increase Oklahoma’s public school costs by $65.5 million after accounting for state and local tax sources, an amount exceeding the entire sum allocated to Oklahoma through the Governor’s Emergency Education Relief Fund.

“As policymakers look to the future—whether in the next few months or in the next legislative session—we hope they will note the high cost to state and local budgets if students are forced to leave the private schools they have chosen to return to the traditional public system,” wrote Robert C. Enlow, president and CEO of EdChoice.

Still Learning?
The debate over providing federal stabilization payments to both private and public schools comes as private schools serving low-income students have been praised for maintaining educational standards while many traditional public schools are under fire for what critics have decried as lack of effort.

Crossover Preparatory Academy—which serves mostly working-class, minority male students in grades six through nine in North Tulsa—has transitioned to online learning, providing students with laptop computers. The school has continued to teach new material to students with regular assignments and continued communication with academic coaches.

That’s in contrast with what has occurred at many traditional public K-12 schools in Oklahoma. A survey of the online learning dashboards implemented on April 6 by a number of Oklahoma school districts showed many are providing little to no student instruction with no new material taught and no grades taken on assignments.

In a recent column, Ted Streuli, the president and executive director of Peaceful Family Solutions, a nonprofit agency focused on addiction issues, lambasted the Edmond Public School district, where his children attend. District officials, Streuli wrote, have chosen “to stand aside and run out the clock on the 2019-2020 school year.” He noted students were being asked to cover “material they’ve already mastered” that “doesn’t count” because it isn’t graded and “no one is even looking at it to know whether the assignments were completed, or if they were done correctly.”

He noted 90 percent of Edmond homes have Internet access.

The lack of education service in many districts has not occurred because of reductions in school finances caused by the COVID shutdown, a fact implicitly acknowledged by the Oklahoma State School Board Association in its attack on aid for private-school families. OSSBA noted that “the state has savings to help mitigate state revenue shortfalls.” Because of $1 billion in state savings, lawmakers were able to fill all shortfalls for the current budget year, which runs through June 30, protecting schools from budget cuts.

At the same time, the shutdown has reduced public school costs in areas such as transportation and utilities, freeing up funds for other uses, although officials do not have estimates yet.

Moving forward, the state government is expected to cut spending, which could impact public schools. But at the same time, public schools have access to substantial federal aid. In addition to the $160 million in CARES Act funding provided to Oklahoma schools, the Oklahoma State Department of Education also reports that state-run public schools are now eligible for reimbursements through the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) Public Assistance Program for emergency protective measures taken to respond to the COVID-19 emergency when those expenditures “are not already reimbursable” by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) or the Centers for Disease Control.

The agency also reports public school districts are now allowed to transfer funds between federal programs in some instances, and public schools have also been provided flexibility in use of their allocated textbook funding during the pandemic.

Ray Carter Director, Center for Independent Journalism

Ray Carter

Director, Center for Independent Journalism

Ray Carter is the director of OCPA’s Center for Independent Journalism. He has two decades of experience in journalism and communications. He previously served as senior Capitol reporter for The Journal Record, media director for the Oklahoma House of Representatives, and chief editorial writer at The Oklahoman. As a reporter for The Journal Record, Carter received 12 Carl Rogan Awards in four years—including awards for investigative reporting, general news reporting, feature writing, spot news reporting, business reporting, and sports reporting. While at The Oklahoman, he was the recipient of several awards, including first place in the editorial writing category of the Associated Press/Oklahoma News Executives Carl Rogan Memorial News Excellence Competition for an editorial on the history of racism in the Oklahoma legislature.

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