Budget & Tax , Education

| April 24, 2020

How Oklahoma should spend its CARES K-12 funding

Executive Summary

The CARES Act provides financial relief to schools struggling with the COVID-19 fallout. Through the Governor’s Emergency Education Relief Fund, Governor Kevin Stitt has discretion on where to spend federal dollars. We provide a number of recommendations, including helping private-school scholarship students by providing grants to cover educational costs. Moreover, the CARES Act directs funds to local educational agencies (LEAs). LEAs could empower school leaders, partner with existing online schools to develop virtual courses, purchase sanitizing equipment, fund an educational expense account for low-income families, among other options. 

I. CARES Act & K-12 Education

In response to the coronavirus outbreak and the economic crisis, President Trump recently signed the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security Act (CARES) Act. This legislation provides up to $2.2 trillion of relief as the country deals with the coronavirus shutdowns and the aftermath. In addition to helping businesses and families, the CARES Act invests about $30 billion in K-12 schools and higher education institutions. Governor Kevin Stitt and school districts will have the authority to access millions of federal dollars and decide how to use the funds to benefit Oklahoma’s education systems. U.S. Department of Education Secretary Betsy DeVos’s administration is starting the process of distributing these funds to states.

Governor Stitt and the Oklahoma State Department of Education (OSDE) must allocate the federal dollars to address immediate and future concerns of Oklahoma schools within a year of receiving the funds. Schools and communities are facing challenges right now, like ensuring students will still receive meals and helping families access resources like broadband and devices to do schoolwork. Many Oklahoma students were already struggling in school; the reality of distance learning will likely exacerbate the learning gaps and the summer slide for students. 

The CARES Act is a massive influx of funding into K-12 that will be allocated soon. As such it represents challenges to policymakers, requiring thoughtful decisions to be made quickly, collaboratively, and transparently.

Below we explain the two main pots of money Governor Stitt and school districts can access and make recommendations on how the federal funds can best be tailored to meet the needs of Oklahoma’s students.

II. Governor’s Emergency Education Relief Fund

The CARES Act allocates $3 billion towards the Governor’s Emergency Education Relief Fund, to be divided among all governors according to a formula. Each governor has an immense amount of discretion to determine how to spend this money. Governor Stitt has access to $39.9 million and can apply for this funding immediately. The biggest restriction is that the Governor’s fund must be used to help K-12 schools or higher education institutions most significantly impacted by the coronavirus or give support to education-related entities in the state that the governor deems essential to carrying out emergency educational services to students.

With so much discretion, Governor Stitt will have the opportunity to empower school leaders and help address these challenges. But it is crucial that the governor uses the funding to target programs that are working and can help students that are in jeopardy of being left behind due to the fallout of the COVID crisis. We recommend Governor Stitt explore the following: 

1.  Provide financial support for students participating in the Oklahoma Equal Opportunity Education Scholarships program. Identify one of Oklahoma’s scholarship-granting organizations (SGOs) as an “education-related entity” and direct some of the federal funding to the SGO to provide funding support for current scholarship students and participating private schools. Specifically, this funding could be used to help provide education supplies for scholarship students, such as computers or access to WiFi, and help cover other education-related costs.

2.  Provide financial support for private school students. Identify one of Oklahoma’s scholarship-granting organizations as an “education-related entity” and direct some of the federal funding to the SGO to provide funding for any private school students that need extra support for tuition or education-related materials.

3.  Provide financial support for any high-risk student. Identify one of Oklahoma’s scholarship-granting organizations as an “education-related entity” and direct some of the federal funding to the SGO to provide funding support for high-risk Oklahoma students, regardless of the school they attend, public or nonpublic. High-risk students could be defined as low-income, minority, students with disabilities, English Language Learners, and/or students attending a low-performing school, as defined by the state’s accountability system. Families could apply directly to the SGO for funds to use towards education-related costs, including access to broadband, education supplies, costs for participating in online classes, etc.

4.  Create incentives for a literacy program. Too many students are unable to read at grade level. According to the 2018-2019 Oklahoma State Report Card, only 26% of all Oklahoma students were proficient in English Language Arts. Federal funding could be used to create incentives for a statewide literacy program that encourages reading development for students.

5.  Provide stipends for teachers in low-performing schools. Oklahoma’s priority schools, those identified as the lowest-performing in the state, represent both urban and rural areas in the state. Public schools are identified as priority if they receive an “F” on the state assessment, the graduation rate is less than 60% for three years (or less than 50% for the previous year), and the school receives a School Improvement Grant. Teachers at these more than 200 schools should be given additional support to use for professional development or educational needs as they serve students in low-performing schools.

6.  Encourage summer learning camps to provide additional course access. Due to school closures, many students will need additional learning support in the fall. One way to help students be better prepared is to provide access to summer school programming with additional course access for students. Federal funding could be used to create summer camps that would help bridge these gaps for students.

7.  Cover remedial education for incoming college freshmen next year. High school seniors should not be penalized for schools that struggled to adapt to virtual learning in the spring. But those struggles could result in more high school seniors taking remedial education classes in college. Federal funding could go towards institutions of higher education to help defray the costs of the remedial education courses. The funding could be distributed as new scholarships to incoming freshmen who will need to take these classes.

III. Elementary and Secondary School Emergency Relief Fund

In addition to the Governor’s Fund, the CARES Act’s Elementary and Secondary School Emergency Relief Fund allocates $13 billion to local educational agencies (LEAs), which include school districts and public charter schools. Oklahoma’s school districts will receive at least $144 million and the money will be distributed by the OSDE via grants to local educational agencies. The CARES Act identifies a wide variety of ways that school districts can use the funding to help respond to the coronavirus crisis, including funding for principals and school leaders, for programs and services to help at-risk students (such as low-income students and students with disabilities), and for training and sanitation relief for schools.

The OSDE and school districts will have a similar opportunity to use the federal funds to address local and individualized challenges. We recommend that the OSDE and school districts consider the following:

1.  Distribute the money to empower school leaders and teachers—not keep the funding at the administrative level. School leaders must be given funding to address schools’ individual needs, which includes teacher training, student supplies, and funding to address other challenges resulting from school closures and distance learning.

2.  Support summer school options. Eventually, school buildings will reopen and students will need supplemental education to help prepare them for the fall of 2020. One way to better prepare students for the fall is to offer summer school options. Federal funding could be used to support existing programs at 21st Century Community Learning Centers, which are run by schools and nonprofits to provide summer school services to students.

3.  Develop virtual courses. Oklahoma’s five virtual charter schools have the unique opportunity to share their knowledge of virtual courses with other schools. With a limited number of school districts developing their own blended or online learning programs, this means that many districts are playing catch-up to serve students during school closures. School districts should use some funding to partner with Oklahoma’s virtual schools and help their teachers receive professional development for online learning from currently practicing school leaders and share best practices for developing online curriculum. A similar partnership was formed in Florida.

4.  Create an Education Expense Account for families with children with specific needs. The CARES Act specifically permits LEAs to use the federal funding for activities to help children that meet any of the following criteria: low-income, are of a racial or ethnic minority, children with disabilities, English language learners, homeless, or in foster care. School districts should consider using some federal funding to provide direct support to families which could use the funding to purchase activities or services to address their child’s unique needs.

5.  Address student and school distance-learning access issues, including student access to devices and broadband. Distance learning is most effective if students have access to the internet and a device that allows them to communicate with their teachers directly. “A recent survey found a third of Tulsa Public Schools students had little or no online access at home,” the Tulsa World reports, and this challenge extends into rural and small school districts as well. Federal funding could be used to help address these access issues by providing both internet access hotspots and devices for students to learn on.

6.  Purchase supplies to sanitize and clean facilities and provide training to staff on sanitation. When schools reopen, student and staff safety will be a priority. One way to ensure everyone’s safety is to purchase the supplies necessary to clean the facilities. But it is also important that school staff are trained on how to prevent the spread of highly contagious viruses in the future.

7.  Work with private schools—as legally required (see below)—that are located within their boundaries. At a time of crisis and immense challenges, school districts should be working with schools from all sectors so that all children benefit from this funding.

IV. Concluding Thoughts

The CARES Act requires that any money from either the Governor's Emergency Education Relief Fund or the Elementary and Secondary School Emergency Relief Fund that goes to a school district (LEA) must also include private schools. As usual, federal funding must be shared equitably with private school students and teachers. It is critical now more than ever that public schools fulfill their legal requirements by meeting and consulting with private schools about funding.

As Oklahoma grapples with concerns about the budget and funding from tax revenue, this federal funding may be a lifeline for Oklahoma’s K-12 system. The CARES Act requires that Oklahoma continues to maintain support for public and private schools. But this federal funding may help alleviate state and school budget challenges if state revenue is low. One way to do this is to use the federal funding to cover the gap between the expectation of state funding and the state funding that is allocated in 2021.

Moreover, the U.S. Department of Education is interested in how this funding will be used and will likely require some type of reporting by states. Transparency in how this federal funding is allocated is good public policy and should be embraced at the state and local levels.

In sum, the CARES Act provides an opportunity for Governor Stitt and school districts to address the challenges that have arisen due to COVID. These recommendations will help ensure that the funding reaches the students and classrooms so that students will be better prepared for next year and support systems for distance learning are properly created. 

This policy brief was prepared by Brandon Dutcher, senior vice president at the Oklahoma Council of Public Affairs, Libby Sobic, education policy director at the Wisconsin Institute for Law & Liberty (WILL), and CJ Szafir, executive vice president at WILL.

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