May 19, 2022

Fact Checking Claims About Unspent COVID-19 Relief Education Funds

Students at Harding Charter Preparatory High School are seen walking through the halls wearing masks during a passing period on May 11, 2021, just weeks after returning to in-person learning. (Whitney Bryen/Oklahoma Watch)

In 2020, Congress allocated some COVID-19 relief funds to governors for education. Our reporting on Gov. Kevin Stitt’s $8 million Bridge the Gap Digital Wallet program uncovered lax guardrails against fraud and, as a result, nearly half a million in purchases with no educational value, like big-screen TVs, home appliances, smartwatches and gaming consoles.

Our latest story details the groups bankrolling the nonprofit where Secretary of Education Ryan Walters earns a six-figure salary as executive director, and how they were involved in the Digital Wallet program.

Meanwhile, a spokeswoman for the governor has been pointing attention to a much larger pot of pandemic relief funding: the $2.3 billion awarded to the Oklahoma Department of Education. Carly Atchison has posted multiple times about these funds, claiming the department is “sitting on $1.4 billion.”

It’s true that the entire $2.3 billion has not been spent. But her statements are misleading.

First, 90% of the funds are allocated to local school districts, and the school boards and staff in those communities are the ones making decisions about how to spend the funds.

State departments were allowed to retain 10% and Oklahoma has outlined its plan for the funds, including programs to provide math tutoring, teacher training in the science of reading and school counselors (see all the initiatives in detail.)

The funds came in three separate waves from the CARES Act, CRRSA Act, and ARP Act — each with its own deadlines to award and spend the funds. The CARES Act deadline is in September of this year, and nearly all of those funds have been spent, as you can see from this tracker on the U.S. Department of Education website (last updated March 31).

And the Wall Street Journal reporter whose story Atchison retweeted says this in a subsequent tweet: schools are spending down earlier funds first and “they’re generally spending it appropriately,” according to federal monitors.

So, how about Atchison’s claim that this was emergency funding to help schools stay open during the pandemic?

That was true of the first two rounds of funding, which were issued in March and December of 2020. Schools were encouraged to use those funds on supporting virtual learning for students and personal protective equipment and cleaning and sanitizing supplies to operate schools safely.

But the American Rescue Plan, passed in March 2021 — the largest allocation at $1.5 billion for schools in Oklahoma —was intended to be more of a long-term investment. School leaders were encouraged to use those funds to shore up teacher shortages by investing in higher salaries for teachers, recruiting and retaining substitute teachers and providing support to educators so they will stay in the profession. The funds are also meant to address the impact of lost class time on students.

These funds represent a significant opportunity to improve education if invested carefully and thoughtfully.

I’d love to know how your local school district is spending its COVID-19 relief dollars. Are they making smart decisions, or squandering the opportunity? Please reach out via email or DM and I may use the information in future stories.

— Jennifer Palmer

More From Oklahoma Watch

Billionaire Philanthropists Pushing Charter Schools and School Vouchers Also Fund Oklahoma’s Secretary of Education’s Six-Figure Salary  

Gov. Kevin Stitt blocked a bill that would have required cabinet members to disclose their finances. [Read More…]

Credit: Jeff Raymond / Oklahoma Watch

Lawmakers Call Special Session Over Pandemic Relief Funds

The special session will allow lawmakers to come back after the regular session to enact a spending plan for $1.8 billion in relief funds. [Read More…]

State Budget Includes One-Time Payment To Help Oklahomans With Inflation, No Grocery Tax Relief

Republican lawmakers provided details Tuesday on their $9.7 billion state budget plan, which included one-time payments to help Oklahomans deal with rising inflation, but notably absent from their announcement was Gov. Kevin Stitt. [Read More…]

Recommended Reading

  • A valedictorian who is affected by nonspeaking autism gave her school’s commencement speech, encouraging her peers to “use their voice.” [NPR]
  • A federal report counted at least 500 Indigenous children who died while attending federally operated boarding schools, but the toll is likely a severe undercount. [The 74]
  • The legislature’s fiscal year 2023 budget package offers a nearly flat budget for common education despite a growing state surplus. [Tulsa World]

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