Ray Carter | January 6, 2023

Oklahoma public schools have billions in reserve

Ray Carter

Oklahoma’s public schools have billions of dollars in reserve funding available through the combination of carryover and unspent federal COVID funding, according to state reports.

On June 30, 2022, Oklahoma public schools reported having more than $1 billion in unspent carryover funding. While that was almost unchanged from the prior year, it represented a nearly 52 percent increase in carryover reserves over five years. On June 30, 2017, public schools reported having $661.4 million in carryover.

The $1 billion in carryover reserve does not include another $1 billion available to schools in unspent federal COVID funding.

Since COVID first appeared in spring 2020, Congress has provided three rounds of federal bailout funding to schools.

The Elementary and Secondary School Emergency Relief Fund (ESSER) was established as part of the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security (CARES-ESSER I) Act in March 2020. That provided Oklahoma schools with $144.8 million.

In December 2020, ESSER II was created through enactment of the Coronavirus Response and Relief Supplemental Appropriations Act (CRRSA-ESSER II). That provided Oklahoma schools another $598.5 million.

In March 2021, the American Rescue Plan Elementary and Secondary School Emergency Relief (ARP-ESSER III) Fund was enacted. It provided Oklahoma schools with another $1.35 billion in extra federal funding.

The Oklahoma State Department of Education reports that most of the first two rounds of federal COVID bailout funding has been spent by Oklahoma schools, but only $505.5 million of the $1.35 billion in ARP-ESSER III funds has been spent.

Currently, roughly $1 billion in federal COVID bailout funds remain unspent and available to Oklahoma schools from all three rounds, based on a release issued by the Oklahoma State Department of Education.

Schools have until Sept. 30, 2024, to identify how they will spend their remaining ESSER III funds.

While federal COVID-bailout funds are expected to be loosely tied to COVID-related expenses, state officials have long noted the categories of spending allowed are very broad and can include routine school expenses with only tangential relationship to COVID.

According to the Oklahoma State Department of Education’s website, schools have used much of their COVID funding for “instruction” and “district expenses.”

The roughly $2 billion in combined carryover funds and unspent federal COVID-bailout funds provides Oklahoma schools with financial capacity that far exceeds a normal year since that total is equivalent to nearly 65 percent of the state appropriation for schools. The state appropriation for public schools approved by the Oklahoma Legislature for the current school year was $3.1 billion.

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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