Schools and Learning

Oklahoma’s Pandemic Voucher Program Results In Misspent Taxpayer Funds

  Samantha Sokol

There’s another egregious example to add to the long list of instances of waste, fraud and abuse in private school voucher programs: Last week, an investigation by Oklahoma Watch and The Frontier revealed half a million dollars of misspent pandemic relief education funds in Oklahoma. Investigators found that education funds were misspent on televisions, pressure washers, car stereos, air fryers, outdoor firepits and even Christmas trees. They discovered that 548 televisions alone were purchased, worth nearly $191,000.

How could this happen? One of the many problems with private school voucher programs, like the one in Oklahoma, is that they lack accountability to taxpayers. Unlike in public schools, where transparent financial records and public oversight are required, voucher programs are easy targets for fraud. It’s no wonder there’s a consistent pattern of voucher programs resulting in taxpayer funds being misspent or outright stolen (starting with those in Florida, Wisconsin, and Arizona, just to name a few).

To understand what happened in Oklahoma, it’s worth tracing how the state got – and misspent – this money in the first place. As part of pandemic relief legislation passed in 2020 and 2021, Congress appropriated billions of taxpayer dollars to the Governor’s Emergency Education Relief (GEER) fund. Most governors spent this money to support public schools struggling during the pandemic.

But some anti-public-education governors, including Gov. Ron DeSantis (R) of Florida and Gov. Henry McMaster (R) of South Carolina, diverted GEER funds to their states’ private school voucher programs instead. Gov. Kevin Stitt of Oklahoma (R), a prominent voucher advocate, was among them: He funneled $18 million of Oklahoma’s GEER funds away from public schools. He spent $10 million on private school voucher programs and distributed the remaining $8 million directly to parents to spend on educational materials or services. Sending taxpayer money directly to parents to use for whatever educational expenses they choose is just a voucher in a different form, but with even fewer rules.

So, with no contract bidding process and zero public input, Stitt awarded a contract to a private school voucher administration company called ClassWallet. ClassWallet sent out the private school voucher money and the “grants” to parents to spend on whatever they wanted from any approved vendors, including stores like The Home Depot, Office Depot, and Staples. ClassWallet implemented nearly zero accountability measures, and Oklahoma gave blanket approval for parents to buy whatever they wanted (whether educational materials and services or not) as long as it was from an “approved” vendor. The result: nearly half a million dollars was misspent on non-educational items, from home furnishings and scooters, to smartwatches and ice makers, to ellipticals and house paint.

For Stitt and his Education Secretary Ryan Walters, this was a trial balloon for universal private school vouchers. According to Walters, Oklahoma’s program could be a model for how to start a school voucher program with “minimum staffing requirements and maximum quality control.” Walters hoped this plan would lay the foundation for a larger-scale effort to funnel even more money to pay for vouchers: “That’s exactly what we’re trying to do… We hope that’s in the cards,” Walters later admitted.

The U.S. Department of Education reviewed Oklahoma’s actions and found that the state was on the hook for implementing barely any safeguards to prevent abuse in this program. Stitt didn’t try to implement proper (or nearly any) procedures for cash management, accounting and internal controls, nor did the state even sign an appropriate government contract with ClassWallet.

As a result, Oklahoma is now under investigation by federal auditors. For Stitt and Walters, though, this lack of oversight was a feature, not a bug. As Stitt’s representative said in response to these allegations, “Governor Stitt had a duty to get federal relief funds to students and families in Oklahoma as quickly as possible and he accomplished just that.”

Proponents of private school vouchers falsely tout that the lack of oversight in voucher programs spurs “innovation” and “competition.” But as this latest investigation in Oklahoma proves, and as we’ve seen again and again, voucher programs and their lack of oversight spur fraud instead. Public funds belong in public schools. There, we can ensure they are actually used to improve education for our kids.

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