Budget & Tax, Education

School choice program proves dramatic success

January 20, 2021

Ray Carter

The “Stay in School” program launched by Gov. Kevin Stitt last summer, which used some federal COVID-19 funds for private-school scholarships, has allowed over 1,000 low-income Oklahoma students to attend private schools at substantially lower cost than what would have been spent on those same students in traditional public schools, a new report shows.

“Critics claimed the program would benefit only ‘rich families’ living in Oklahoma metros and would never cover the cost of actual tuition,” the report noted. “Those criticisms have been dashed to pieces by the real-world results.”

The report, released by the Oklahoma Private School Accreditation Commission, showed that the majority of scholarship recipients were eligible for the free-and-reduced lunch program with many living in severe poverty, and recipients are now attending private schools across the state, including rural Oklahoma.

The Stay in School Fund tuition assistance program, launched by Stitt last July, used $10 million from the Governor’s Emergency Education Relief (GEER) Fund—money provided through the federal Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security (CARES) Act—to pay for returning private school students to remain in their schools.

One reason Stitt launched the program was concern that the economic impact of COVID-19 would eliminate outside funding for many private-school scholarship programs and force many students to return to public schools. That influx of students would have increased the financial strain on public schools.

The governor also warned that the disruption of changing schools amidst economic uncertainty could contribute to increased adverse childhood experiences, or ACES.

“Our Stay in School program has successfully supported more low-income children and their families than officials predicted for a fraction of the cost,” Stitt said. “By ensuring these children could remain within their educational support system amidst a global pandemic, we have provided critical stability for families who need it most.”

By funding private-school scholarships, Stitt was able to educate those children at a much lower cost than what would have otherwise occurred in Oklahoma’s public schools. In fact, the report showed the cost of private-school scholarships was even lower than what proponents expected.

When the Stay in School program was announced, officials predicted it would benefit more than 1,500 Oklahoma children with scholarships of $6,500 each.

Instead, as of December 18, the report said scholarships were provided to 1,893 children at a cost of $5,132 per child. The lower per-pupil expenditure was due to private-school tuition often being less than anticipated.

“Put another way, the program served 25 percent more children at a 20-percent-lower per-child cost than predicted,” the report stated.

The average scholarship grant of $5,132 is far lower than the amount expended in the traditional public school setting where per-pupil spending from all sources was $12,069 in 2019, based on data from the Oklahoma Cost Accounting System (OCAS).

“Critics claimed the program would benefit only ‘rich families’ living in Oklahoma metros and would never cover the cost of actual tuition. Those criticisms have been dashed to pieces by the real-world results.”

The $10 million used for the Stay in School Fund was only a fraction of the total federal COVID-bailout funding provided to Oklahoma through the CARES Act and paled in comparison to the amount directed to state public schools.

Nonetheless, critics quickly attacked Stitt’s willingness to provide private-school options to low-income children.

Legislative Democrats requested an opinion from the state attorney general, arguing the Stay in School program was not legal and asking that the scholarship money “be redirected” to other uses, a demand that would have required taking money back from scholarship recipients.

The attorney general concluded the program was legal.

The Oklahoma Education Association (OEA), the state affiliate of the National Education Association and the largest teachers’ union in Oklahoma, has been especially critical of the scholarship program.

Following Stitt’s July announcement, OEA President Alicia Priest said the governor was “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.”

On Aug. 8, the OEA tweeted, “The governor funneled $10m in pandemic relief dollars into a voucher scheme for families in ‘poverty.’ The reality: families earning more than $100k could qualify. This is what corruption looks like.”

But the report found that 57 percent of Stay in School scholarship recipients are from families that qualify for the federal free-and-reduced lunch program—meaning a family of four with $48,470 or less in annual income.

More than one out of every five recipients comes from a home with income at 100 percent of the federal poverty level (FPL) or less, meaning a family of four with $26,200 or less in annual income.

Claims that the scholarship program diverted much-needed federal COVID-19 funds from public schools have been undermined by recent data that shows public schools have more funding than they can spend for those needs.

Of $144 million provided to Oklahoma for public-school districts’ COVID-19 needs through the federal CARES Act, just $46 million had been spent at the halfway mark of the 2020-2021 school year, according to officials at the Oklahoma State Department of Education.

In addition to opposing private-school scholarships for low-income children, the OEA has also been a vocal opponent of reopening public schools for full-time, in-person instruction for all other students. The OEA has maintained that stance even though the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) has reported that “outbreaks within K–12 schools have been limited” and that the incidence of COVID-19 infection among the general population in areas where K–12 schools offer in-person education is “similar to that in counties offering only virtual/online education.”

The OEA has opposed in-person instruction even though Stitt announced teachers will be prioritized in distribution of the vaccination for COVID-19.

At schools that have not reopened for full-time, in-person instruction, the academic consequences have been severe, especially for low-income children like those served through Stitt’s Stay in School program.

KWTV-News9, Oklahoma City’s CBS-affiliate station, reported that the number of high school students in the Oklahoma City school district with one F or more has increased from 35.56 percent in 2019 to 59.33 percent in 2020. Oklahoma City has not fully reopened this school year.

Even with significant restrictions for participation in the program, demand for Stay in School scholarships far exceeded supply, according to the report.

“More than 15,000 students applied for tuition assistance,” the report stated. “For roughly every eight students that applied, the state was able to provide just one award.”

Recipients were also from all parts of Oklahoma. Those receiving grants included children in 86 of the 101 districts that make up the Oklahoma House of Representatives and 42 of the 48 districts in the Oklahoma Senate.

The report showed that scholarship recipients are now attending 97 private schools across the state, including in communities well outside Oklahoma’s metro areas, such as Clinton, Durant, Sulphur, Ponca City, Muskogee, Bartlesville, Tahlequah, Enid, Miami, Choctaw, McAlester, Okarche, Corn and Ardmore.

The report stated, “Gov. Kevin Stitt’s Stay in School Fund program proves the strong desire of Oklahoma parents from all income levels and all locations for school choice, proves the state can provide needy families a quality education for an average of as little as $5,132 per child, and proves that private schools across Oklahoma will gladly accept children from the lower rungs of the economic ladder.”