OKLAHOMA CITY — Oklahoma’s education secretary says it’s time for Oklahomans to have a “robust” discussion about the role federal funds play in local schools and whether the “conditions attached by Washington, DC, politicians are worth it, even as school advocates warn that the gutting of federal funding will devastate urban and rural districts.
Ryan Walters said maybe it’s time to start rejecting federal funding that goes to local schools, especially if those funds dictate what needs to be taught, have ties to federal testing mandates and aren’t not the best for children.
“It forces us to do some in-depth analysis and discuss whether our money is being spent as efficiently as possible and whether we want to take some federal dollars,” he said.
On average, federal funding represents nearly 10% of total current Oklahoma school district revenue. It funds day-to-day operations such as staff assisting with federally funded programs for reading assistance, special education, and child nutrition. Federal funds also help districts on federal or tribal land offset their reduced local tax base, said Shawn Hime, executive director of the State School Boards Association.
Walters, meanwhile, told his followers that he had already begun “phasing us out using” federal dollars.
When reached by phone, Walters said he didn’t know how much federal funding he had turned down since being nominated by Gov. Kevin Stitt as secretary of state for education. He said he has very little jurisdiction over federal grants because they are the responsibility of the state Department of Education and overseen by State Superintendent Joy Hofmeister. However, he actively reviewed them to find out “what are the conditions attached”.
Walters, who is running to become the next state superintendent, said if elected he would have much more power over them. He said that with Oklahoma consistently ranking in the bottom five of nearly every education category for student outcomes, taxpayers need an accurate and transparent picture of all money received, where it’s going and “what conditions are attached”. It’s time, he said, to analyze every federal dollar and whether there’s a benefit.
“What is the cost to the taxpayers of Oklahoma, because often we have to agree to absorb some of the cost with state and local dollars, and we have to make sure that what we do provides every child with a great education and not accepting DC and Joe Biden’s solutions to improving education because frankly, Joe Biden and Washington, DC have no idea how to improve education in Oklahoma,” said Walters.
He said that belief would not change even if Republicans controlled the White House.
Walters said federal government programs often come under the guise of giving money, but “then they tie strings that are tied to indoctrination.”
Walters specifically cited a federal social studies curriculum grant that he says includes teaching critical race theory because it requires teaching the concepts of diversity, equity, and inclusion. He also cited federal grants that are closely tied to standardized evaluation mandates.
In an email, Kyle Reynolds, superintendent of Woodward Public Schools, said he heard Walters compare the district’s social-emotional learning strategies, or SELs, administered under a federal Project AWARE grant to critical teachings. of race theory. In the first three years of the grant, the strategies reduced Reynolds District disciplinary referrals by 40 percent, improved attendance, increased time spent in class, and improved students’ ability to focus and study better.
“There is no logical connection between these two concepts, which means that the secretary is either misinformed or trying to maliciously SEL, for what purpose I cannot understand,” he said. he declares. “Trying to equate SEL with (critical race theory) is a travesty and an embarrassment.”
The district is also using the five-year grant to raise awareness of mental health issues. This grant enabled district officials to hire a licensed mental health provider who, with parental permission, sees approximately 25 to 30 students per week.
For the 2021-2022 school year, federal revenues from Woodward’s public schools made up about 24% of its budget — or more than $5.6 million, Reynolds said in an email.
The district uses a federal grant to support, encourage, and enable students to attend college. Another federal grant enabled it to establish an after-school program in its three elementary schools and early childhood center that integrates science, technology, reading, engineering, arts, and math activities.
“I struggle to understand the thought process behind any effort to reduce or eliminate federal funding, especially given the fact that our state seems unwilling to invest enough funds in education,” he said. said Reynolds.
Although Oklahoma lawmakers have touted recent historic investments in public education, the state consistently ranks in the bottom five in terms of school funding.
Hime, with the State School Boards Association, said the federal government funds education at a ratio based on what the state invests.
He said that because Oklahoma funds education at a “very low rate” compared to most other states, such as Texas and Kansas, its schools receive less federal funding.
Other states would see their shares rise further if Walters rejects federal funding, and supporters say it’s unclear how Oklahoma would fill the funding gap, or if it would be exempt from federal funding requirements. ‘education.
State Sen. Chuck Hall, R-Perry, said he won’t speculate on who will win November’s superintendent election.
“What I can tell you is that the Oklahoma Constitution is very clear that the legislature writes the state budget,” said Hall, who serves as vice president of appropriations.
This federal funding, he said, is part of the state budget.
In public schools in Normandy, federal funding represents 12% – or approximately $16.5 million – of total revenue collected in the 2022 budget year. Federal funds are “woven” throughout the district and pay for things such as free and discounted lunches, American Indian education programs, special education programs, gifted and talented programs, dropout prevention programs, math and reading remediation, parent engagement activities and family, staff development and counselors, the district said.
“The impact of the loss of federal funds would be significant and severe,” spokesman Wes Moody said in an email. “It would be highly unlikely that the district could make up for this lost revenue, and as such these programs – and especially the families and students who benefit from them – would be greatly affected.”
Tanya Jones, superintendent of Tahlequah Public Schools, said the federal money made up about $13.8 million — or 31% — of the district’s total budget.
Federal funds pay about 100 employees in the district, including pre-kindergarten teachers and assistants, special education teachers and staff, literacy and art teachers, anti-bullying coordinators and school counselors .
The impact of losing federal funding would be “devastating,” she said in an email. She said funding would be lost with no specific way to offset that revenue. Cuts in services and personnel would be inevitable.
“Our students would go without academic, emotional and security services,” Jones said. “Achievement would diminish. Class sizes would increase. We would lose our early childhood program.