Oklahoma’s private school scholarship tax credit program lacks transparency about which schools receive the funding and how much. But if the governor decides to use emergency stimulus funds on the program, as he suggested last week, it might require more detailed reporting on where the scholarships go.
Gov. Kevin Stitt will control nearly $40 million in education relief funds as part of the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security (CARES) Act, which also includes nearly $161 million for Oklahoma school districts.
Stitt has not officially announced how he will spend the money but has floated the idea of the Oklahoma Equal Opportunity Education Scholarship program, which offers individuals and corporations a tax credit for donating to an organization awarding private school scholarships.
In a letter to lawmakers on Thursday, Secretary of State Michael Rogers, who is also Stitt’s education secretary, said no decision has been made and that media reports of private school scholarship programs being considered “lacks context.”
“Significant portions of this $39.8 million will likely go to traditional public schools, career tech systems, and higher education institutions,” Rogers wrote this week in an email to state lawmakers.
Rogers said rural broadband, hotspot connectivity and other improvements to virtual learning opportunities were ideas that have been discussed.
Education-related organizations, such as libraries, are also being considered, according to officials working with the governor.
Emergency education funds for governors can be used for private school students, according to guidelines from the U.S. Department of Education that were reviewed by The Frontier.
The funds are to be used for “emergency support” for schools “significantly impacted by COVID-19.”
While the guidelines appear to focus on specific uses, such as devices for students completing school remotely, there is no language that addresses private school tuition.
Currently the Oklahoma Equal Opportunity Education Scholarship program is managed by nonprofits that receive a donation from an individual or corporation and issue scholarships to schools. Donors report the tax credit when they file annual taxes.
Within 45 days of receiving the stimulus funds, Stitt’s office will be required to provide a report that details how he will spend the money, the criteria he used for determining those entities that are “most significantly impacted by coronavirus” and a description of the process and deliberations involved in formulating those criteria.
The bill requires “detailed information on any level of subcontracts or subgrants awarded by the covered recipient or its subcontractors or subgrantees.”
That could mean scholarship granting organizations must report which private schools receive tuition funds and the total amount, a level of transparency not currently required.
However, if Stitt chose to support the program by putting the money into the state budget to offset the tax credit it is unclear what additional details would be reported since the scholarship granting organization isn’t directly receiving the funds.
Stitt has advocated for the scholarship program before, including during his State of the State address this year when he called on the Legislature to increase the donation cap from $5 million to $30 million.
He invited two young boys to his address that had received the scholarships to attend a north Tulsa private school and saw academic improvements.
“Increasing the tax credit cap will provide additional incentive for donors,” Stitt said.
The nonprofit ExcelinEd, founded by former Florida governor and school choice advocate Jeb Bush, praised Stitt for his suggestion of using funds for private school tuition.
“If Governor Stitt decides to support the tax-credit scholarship, he will be setting a precedent that other governors could follow to equitably care for students and families impacted by the COVID-19 pandemic,” ExcelinEd posted in a blog post this week.
ExcelinEd has promoted the use of stimulus funds for private schools saying if those schools were to close it would put more students in the public system and decrease student-based funding.
The Oklahoma Equal Opportunity Education Scholarship is awarded to students with a household income up to 300 percent of the free- and reduced-price lunch levels used by schools, which is nearly $140,000 for a family of four.
“It’s taking money from our tax base, so it’s money that could be going to public schools, or health care or any other services,” said Rebecca Fine, an education policy analyst at the Oklahoma Policy Institute, which advocates for more transparency around the program and to decrease the income requirement.
With around 2,500 students receiving scholarships, Fine questioned the use of stimulus funds as an efficient way to address the economic crisis.
“That comes out to less than a half a percent of all Oklahoma school children. You would think the governor would want to use the money to have the greatest impact for students across the state.” Fine said.
The Oklahoma Council of Public Affairs, a conservative think tank in Oklahoma City, is a supporter of the scholarship program and many of its past and current board members serve on the board of the Opportunity Scholarship Fund, the state’s largest scholarship granting organization.
The OCPA declined to make someone available for an interview.
Cristo Rey Catholic High School in Oklahoma City is a private school serving 180 students from low-income families.
Students are put in work study programs that pay for the majority of their tuition, with another $1,400 coming from the Oklahoma Equal Opportunity Education Scholarship, according Chip Carter, the school’s president.
“I jokingly say that if you can afford to come you can’t come,” Carter said.
The school received $378,000 in scholarship funds this year.
The decline in the economy has ended the school’s student work programs and hurt fundraising. Carter said Stitt’s use of stimulus funds for the scholarship program could offset losses going into the new school year.
“I am terrified if we are still in this lockdown mode this summer and fall because I need to have 300 kids who are able to have jobs at my corporate partners and working,” Carter said.
Many public education groups immediately rebuked Stitt’s suggestion of using stimulus funds for the scholarship program, including the state Department of Education and the state’s largest teachers union.
“What we were really hoping is he would be looking for ways that he could use those dollars that would impact the most students,” said Erin Brewer, a leader with the Oklahoma Parent Legislative Action Committee, a public school advocacy group.
“That (idea) didn’t really seem reflective of what most Oklahoma public school parents would be looking for, especially during a time when so many kids are struggling to do distance learning.”