OKLAHOMA CITY — Oklahoma education advocates Monday panned the governor’s plan to spend $10 million of the state’s discretionary federal COVID-19 aid on $6,500 stipends for private school families.

Education advocates said public schools are struggling to safely reopen, obtain personal protective gear and cleaning supplies and ensure students have access to the internet for virtual learning. However, Republican Gov. Kevin Stitt plans to spend nearly a quarter of his discretionary relief funds on just 5% of the state’s school-aged children.

Alicia Priest, president of the Oklahoma Education Association, said public schools serve about 740,000 students — or about 91% of school-aged children. Priest, who heads the state’s largest teachers union, said it's “disappointing, disheartening and frustrating to say the least” that Stitt is funneling money to private schools instead.

“All of our children are suffering (adverse childhood experiences) because of the pandemic, so we should be (spending it) on all of the children, not just a small portion of children who attend private schools,” she said. (I’m) disheartened, yes, because more of our students will suffer because of a lack of leadership from our governor.”

Stitt said that his $10 million initiative, known as the Stay in School Fund, will help stabilize Oklahoma’s education system and reduce adverse childhood experiences. The initiative will provide temporary funds to students currently attending private schools whose continued attendance is threatened by COVID-19, officials said.

He said the initiative is targeted at private school families who have suffered job losses or a demonstrated economic impact related to COVID-19. More than 1,500 private school families will be eligible for $6,500.

“We have great private schools in Oklahoma that serve homeless children and children living in poverty,” he said. “Assisting those families will be our first priority and greatest focus, followed closely by helping families who have suffered severe financial hardship from COVID-19’s impact on employment and job opportunities.”

Public school families are not eligible to apply for the funds, which will be distributed by the Oklahoma Private School Accrediting Commission.

Stitt spokeswoman Baylee Lakey said the U.S. Department of Education provided a total of $360 million for Oklahoma’s public education systems to respond to the pandemic. Of that, $39.9 million was designated into a special discretionary fund that Stitt is using to pay for innovative programs to support all Oklahoma students.

She said just 2.8% of all the COVID-19-related federal funds have been designated for private schools.

She said Stitt’s “Bridge the Gap” program will set aside $8 million so low-income students statewide can purchase curriculum content, tutoring services or technology.

Children who attend Oklahoma City’s Positive Tomorrows private school are homeless, said Susan Agel, the president and CEO of Positive Tomorrows.

“The governor’s decision to use federal funds to help these children continue attending our school is literally life-changing and perhaps even life-saving, because we not only provide education but also a wide range of services, ranging from clothing to cleaning supplies to emotional support,” she said. “With this program, Gov. Stitt is making wise use of our tax dollars by investing it in our most precious resource: Oklahoma’s children.”

Clark Frailey, executive director of Pastors for Oklahoma Kids, said there are more than 25,000 homeless students statewide. He said Stitt’s program is “segmenting out just a few,” and largely excludes poor and homeless students in rural parts of the state.

His group advocates for equity and fairness in public education funding.

“We are a state that needs to look at things in scale because we have a lot of needs,” Frailey said. “I am very concerned when we talk about private school vouchers like this because it goes to a very small group, and there’s not accountability for that.”

He said most homeless children attending private schools are either on scholarship or getting financial aid. Also most of Oklahoma’s private schools have already received federal coronavirus aid to help cover expenses.

Children living in rural areas, meanwhile, don’t even have access to internet at home.

Frailey said the funds would be better spent to improve broadband and technology access statewide.

Ginger Tinney, executive director of the Professional Oklahoma Educators, a Norman-based group that represents school personnel, said public schools are hurting badly.

“We sure wish it had gone to public schools,” she said. “I know in public ed there are many needs. We really need any dime that we can get.”

She said state education officials have expressed concern there won’t be enough money to cover the purchase of personal protective equipment and to provide the necessary connectivity for virtual learning.

Tinney said her group wants transparency in how the funds are administered.

“We do want to see how the funds are spent in a clear and concise way that the public can understand because it is public money, and I guarantee we’re going to have to pay it back,” she said. “So we do want to know how are you going to spend the money.”

Janelle Stecklein covers the Oklahoma Statehouse for CNHI's newspapers and websites. Reach her at jstecklein@cnhi.com.

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