[This article was originally delivered to subscribers of our Education Watch newsletter. Sign up now to receive Education Watch directly in your inbox.]
In a recent phone interview with Gov. Kevin Stitt for a story about his track record on education, I was able to talk to the governor directly about the Bridge the Gap Digital Wallet program, and the findings from our investigation with The Frontier (catch up here.)
Stitt allotted $8 million in federal funds to the program, dispersing $1,500 grants to low-income families to buy school supplies in 2020.
Our investigation, and a federal audit, found families spent more than half a million dollars on items of questionable educational value: TVs, doorbells, barbecue grills, home appliances, and other items.
Auditors recommended the U.S. Department of Education claw back the funds that were misspent. Where would that money come from?
It’s possible the Legislature would find the funds in the state budget.
It’s also possible the state will prevail in its lawsuit against ClassWallet and the company will pay back those funds.
Stitt, though, also suggested another way.
“As soon as 18 months ago, we found out that there may have been families that misused those funds. We did an audit. We found out there were $700,000 worth of potential misrepresentations from these families, $1,500 at a time. So we put them on notice.
“If the Legislature wants to sue those families for that $1,500, we can do that. The vendor is being sued and we think we’ll recover that $600,000 or $700,000 for the taxpayer.”
But Stitt’s appointed secretary of education, Ryan Walters, who is running for state superintendent, had given “blanket approval” for the families to buy anything on select vendor websites.
Stitt also seemed to excuse some purchases of home appliances. “The individual folks in Oklahoma that got that $1,500, they’re saying, ‘Well, we didn’t do anything wrong because our school was closed in Tulsa. And so the reason we bought a washer and dryer is normally our kids clothes were washed at school.’ And the one family that bought a refrigerator said, ‘Well, the reason we bought our refrigerator is because our school was closed.’ And that part was okay with this plan.”
A point of clarification: we found over 100 refrigerators in the purchase data And Tulsa was far from the only school district using virtual instruction in the fall of 2020.
The state’s handling of Digital Wallet has become a major issue in the races for governor and superintendent of public instruction. Be sure to read our series of stories publishing this week on Stitt’s first term.
Thoughts, suggestions, story tips? Please send them my way via email or direct message.
— Jennifer Palmer
- The two candidates for state superintendent of public instruction faced off Wednesday in their only scheduled debate before the Nov. 8 general election. [The Oklahoman]
- Caitlyne, who hid in a classroom during the school shooting in Uvalde, Texas, has become a voice for her friends who were dead and those who were alive but too daunted to say anything. [The Washington Post]
- Emerging evidence shows an uptick in developmental delays and challenging behaviors in children belonging to the “COVID generation” — babies born during or shortly before the pandemic. [USA Today]
- Student academic achievement results in the Nation’s Report Card are mostly gloomy — but there were a few surprising bright spots. [The Hechinger Report]
Making the Grade: Has Stitt Fulfilled His Education Promises?
One of Stitt’s main promises in education has been to make Oklahoma’s average teacher compensation the highest in the region. A look at how he did with that and other promises. [Read more]
More From Oklahoma Watch
What Stitt Has and Hasn’t Done to Address Oklahoma’s Poor Health Outcomes
Gov. Kevin Stitt promised to use his business acumen to make Oklahoma top-10 in public health. Now, seeking a second term, Stitt said his vision was only aspirational. [Read more]
All States Lost Ground on Nation’s Report Card. Oklahoma Slipped More Than Most
The data offers the clearest picture yet of academic setbacks incurred during the COVID-19 pandemic. Federal officials cautioned against drawing direct correlations with remote learning. [Read more]
Our State Under Stitt: Government at the Speed of Business
Kevin Stitt campaigned on a simple theme in 2018: Hire me as the state’s CEO and let me show you how to transform state government. [Read more]
Help Us Make a Difference
Oklahoma needs high-quality investigative journalism. That is our mission at Oklahoma Watch. We produce stories that hold government and public officials accountable and that make transparent what some prefer to keep secret. We depend on financial support from readers like you to sustain our coverage. Help us make a difference.