Gov. Stitt’s GEER plan widens the gap in access to technology and online learning for low-income students and students of color

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Gov. Stitt recently announced a plan about how he will spend the remaining Governor’s Emergency Education Relief (GEER) funding Oklahoma received as part of the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security Act (CARES) in April. The federal government granted governors considerable flexibility to spend these relief dollars on education-related needs due to due to COVID-19, which ranged from child care through higher education. 

Rather than optimize federal relief dollars to reach as many school aged children as possible, the Governor’s plan directs almost half of all GEER funding ($18 million) to less than 1 percent of all students in the state. This includes one quarter of the total funding package dedicated to just 1,500 students — 0.2% of all school children in Oklahoma — who attend private schools. This means that public GEER funding disproportionately serves the state’s approximately 65,000 private school students rather than Oklahoma’s 700,000 children who attend public schools. Directing large sums of relief funding to a tiny fraction of Oklahoma children and a small number of private schools begs questions about who this plan is actually intended to serve and which children will continue to be left behind. 

Fifty percent of GEER funding will reach less than 1 percent of all students in Oklahoma

Gov. Stitt received $39.9 million total in GEER funding and his recently announced plan outlined how he will spend $30 million of those dollars. Earlier, Gov. Stitt awarded $8 million of GEER funding for competitive Incentive Grants to public schools for emergency needs. Superintendent Hofmeister dedicated an additional $8 million in other federal funding and the combined $16 million Incentive Grants were awarded to 150 districts serving approximately 282,700 students. By contrast, Gov. Stitt’s plan is to spend remaining $30 million of GEER funding as follows:

  • $10 million for Stay in School Funds: $6,500 stipends will be awarded to 1,500 low-income families whose children attend private schools.
  • $8 million for Every Kid Counts: $1,500 grants will be awarded to 5,000 low-income students to purchase curriculum content, tutoring services, or technology.
  • $12 million for Learning Anywhere digital platform: The Learning Anywhere online education platform will “allow schools to access high quality digital content” such as Advanced Placement courses across all grade levels.

Gov. Stitt’s plan missed an opportunity to get low-income students much-needed remote learning technology 

Low-income students across Oklahoma have a great need for improved access to the internet and related learning devices, especially if schools need to pivot to remote learning due to public health concerns. Sixty percent of Oklahoma’s public school students, approximately 415,000 students, come from low-income families. Census data gathered during the pandemic show only 50 percent of these families have digital devices always available for educational purposes compared to almost 80 percent of higher income families. Similarly, only 65 percent of low-income families always have access to the internet, compared to four out of five of those with higher incomes. School districts lack the funding they need to fill this technological divide: before the pandemic, only 4 percent of all districts in the state had an internet-connected device for every student.

The most efficient way to bridge this divide is to give districts the funding to purchase mobile devices in bulk so that every student in the state has the technology they need to learn remotely. Gov. Stitt clearly recognizes the outsized impact that the pandemic is having on low-income students. However, his GEER plan dedicates more than double the funding ($18 million) to serve just 2 percent of the students reached through the $8 million Incentive Grant allocation. The Governor’s earlier decision to distribute $8 million of GEER funding to public school districts was exactly the right way to ensure that schools can get what Oklahoma students need most — access to digital devices and the internet.Therefore, it is both puzzling and disappointing that Gov. Stitt’s plan did not utilize additional funding to extend this reach. 

At least one-quarter of GEER funding will go to private schools 

It is similarly troubling that the Governor dedicated one-quarter of all the GEER funding ($10 million) to less than 1 percent — just 1,500 — of the state’s low-income students to pay for private school. During a time when low-income students across the state desperately need access to remote learning technology, Gov. Stitt’s decision to direct a quarter of GEER funding to pay private school tuition for a fraction of a percent of low-income families who need support is a misguided and irresponsible stewardship of public dollars especially during the current economic downturn. 

When adjusted for inflation and population growth, this year’s state budget will be the second lowest of this century. Mercifully, after just barely recovering from a decade of budget cuts, federal CARES Act dollars spared public education from another spending reduction. However, with the new surge in coronavirus cases and the state’s economic recovery still uncertain, public education could face budget shortfalls yet again during the next fiscal year, which starts July 1, 2021. During this time of austerity and tremendous need, all public relief dollars should have been used for their intended purpose — to help keep public schools afloat. 

$12 million Learn Anywhere platform prompts questions

Finally, Gov. Stitt allocates $12 million to create the largely undefined Learn Anywhere digital platform, which will provide districts access to Advanced Placement courses and other content. The LearnAnywhereOK.org website explains that the state is still finalizing contracts and it was not possible to attain more detailed information about the program. Therefore, a number of questions remain about how it will serve students across the state. Unfortunately, the plan does not ensure students have access to the technology they need to utilize Learn Anywhere, nor is it clear why districts may need additional online platforms. The Oklahoma State Department of Education has already given districts free access to a supplemental online learning program called Exact Path. Teachers adeptly moved their courses online in the spring utilizing sources from the state department of education and elsewhere, and some districts have rolled out their own online platforms. Learn Anywhere may be a prudent use of funding for small districts if it is provided at no additional cost and if all students have the technology they need to access the digital coursework. 

The governor’s GEER plan missed the mark in getting students what they need 

The pandemic will continue to have an outsized impact on the learning, development, and future for all Oklahoma children. Some estimates show that the lost learning time could impact children well into adulthood and exacerbate gaps in learning opportunities that already exist for low-income and students of color. Unfortunately, our Governor squandered an opportunity to use federal dollars to mitigate this harm. As a result, these decisions have left the vast majority of low-income students without the resources they need to access a safe and quality education this coming school year. Oklahoma needs our leaders to ensure that all Oklahoma children can learn and thrive and should maximize all available resources to do so.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Rebecca Fine joined OK Policy in July 2018 as the education policy analyst. Originally from New York, she began her career in education as an Oklahoma teacher. Rebecca proudly comes from a family of educators, and spent four years teaching middle school in Tulsa and Union Public Schools. She graduated magna cum laude with a B.A. in political science from the University of Rochester and received an M.A. in Educational Policy Studies from the University of Wisconsin-Madison.

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