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Nearly $1.4 million in federal grants left unused by education department, lawmakers call for more from LOFT report

State Superintendent Ryan Walters addresses media members after the December 2023 Board of Education meeting.
Beth Wallis
StateImpact Oklahoma
State Superintendent Ryan Walters addresses media members after the December 2023 Board of Education meeting.

The Oklahoma Legislative Office of Fiscal Transparency presented its report to lawmakers Thursday on federal grant funding for the State Department of Education and on the agency’s authority in student testing rulemaking.

Nearly $1.4 million has been left on the table in federal grants, and State Superintendent Ryan Walters told lawmakers that’s due to the exodus of staffers from his department.

The LOFT report details two federal grants that expired with money leftover: the Ready2Learn and STOP School Violence Technology and Threat Assessment grants - both from the U.S. Department of Justice and aimed at preventing school violence.

For Ready2Learn, OSDE did not renew contracts for two vendors handling grant projects and closed out the grant with just one of the three grant objectives completed, leaving about $1.2 million on the table. For the other grant, about $200,000 was left unspent. The report notes OSDE remained in compliance with the DOJ, and no state funds will need to be used for repayment.

When lawmakers questioned why the money was left unused, Walters blamed poor record-keeping from employees who left his department.

“They were either removed or left and intentionally did not turn over records,” Walters said. “So those were things that we have dealt with, and we have a much better process in place moving forward.”

Walters said the department’s new process for grants is now decentralized and involves his entire team.

The LOFT report also looked at the department’s compliance with SB36x, a bill passed last year directing OSDE that it may not avoid applying for any grant that it had received previously without legislative approval.

One of the grants mentioned in the report was Project Get Fit, a five-year grant to improve student health. According to the report, the grant required a partnership with the Oklahoma State Department of Health to administer the program.

Before the grant’s December 2023 expiration, the health department told LOFT that OSDE had decided not to pursue renewing the grant due to the inclusion of a new philosophical model called Whole School, Whole Community, Whole Child. The model emphasizes the roles of psychosocial and physical environments.

Though the grant is in the report, it was not mentioned by LOFT in Thursday’s hearing.

Inversely, a grant mentioned in the hearing and absent from the report is the Future Native Leaders Grant. LOFT cited the grant as an example of the difficulty it found in ascertaining whether OSDE had complied with SB36x.

Though the 2023 version of the grant carried the same federal catalog number, listed purpose and granting agency, the original grant objectives were aimed at Native students, but the 2023 grant is aimed at Native teachers. OSDE did not reapply for this grant.

The report also covered the bump in funds from federal pandemic relief dollars and noted OSDE’s lag on updating its funding dashboard website. LOFT said the site is missing $112 million of federal funds and “understated the depiction of cost by $847 million.”

Rep. Melissa Provenzano (D-Tulsa) and other members appeared disturbed by the website’s lag.

“Am I reading that correctly? And is that a timing error? Is that in process? I mean, that’s a lot of money,” Provenzano said. “So how are those dollars being spent, have been spent, and when will that be updated?”

OSDE staffers and Walters responded the department cannot currently access the website because it was created as a standalone website by employees no longer with OSDE, and it is waiting for OMES to grant the department access.

Throughout the hearing, lawmakers called out gaps in LOFT’s report and requested follow up information to be included in the final report, including: a list from the U.S. Department of Education of grants OSDE received prior to 2019, details on federal grant funding going to non-public schools in Oklahoma and details on inappropriate GEER spending.

LOFT said it kept a running list of requests during the hearing and would add those to its final report.

LOFT’s second report: student testing rules vs. statutes

In its second report, LOFT examined OSDE’s rules on student testing for “compliance with statutory language and legislative intent.”

At the center of the report was a proposed administrative rule from Walters that would tie state test scores to a school district’s accreditation status. The governor has until mid-July to approve or veto the rules.

LOFT cited a state statute that directs the State Board of Education to establish accreditation standards that “equal or exceed nationally recognized accreditation standards to the extent that the standards are consistent with an academics results-oriented approach to accreditation.”

But LOFT also said some new rules are too vague due to their reliance on broad state statutes. It recommended the department instead use the most narrow sections of the law.

Sen. Michael Brooks (D-Oklahoma City) questioned LOFT as to why it left out of its report a recent formal opinion from Oklahoma Attorney General Gentner Drummond that said the State Board of Education and Walters cannot make rules without direction from state lawmakers.

Brooks noted OSDE did not list statutes in its citations for its proposed rule to tie accreditation to test standards that LOFT included in its report.

“So is it up to LOFT to make the arguments for the Department of Education when it comes to this issue?” Brooks asked.

LOFT responded that while it did not try to make legal determinations, it tried to identify the original statute that authorized OSDE to make its rule, and those determinations were made independent of OSDE.

Brooks called for LOFT to include the impact of the AG’s opinion in its final report.

Several democratic lawmakers voiced more concerns about the proposed rule tying testing to accreditation. Provenzano called the rule a “hammer” — instead of providing “supports” for struggling schools.

“I completely disagree with your assessment entirely,” Walters responded to Provenzano. “I believe that when districts are not meeting state law, when they’re not meeting the expectations the legislature has put on them with law, that they need to be identified with a deficiency — that they are not meeting their end of the bargain to the legislature and to parents.”

Rep. Meloyde Blancett (D-Tulsa) asked Walters how districts with disproportionately high populations of low income students are going to be supported by the rule.

Walters responded that he felt it was essential to “hold high expectations on kids, no matter what their background is.”

Sen. Julia Kirt (D-Oklahoma City) asked why the LOFT report left out special education students and was concerned the rule doesn’t take into account the number of students with disabilities.

“I think that that may be one of my biggest concerns with the report is the emphasis on these one-size-fits-all assessments that don’t really address — when we’re talking about student success — do not really address those needs for student success,” Kirt said.

LOFT said it would work with OSDE to see if there are any assessment rules that pertain to students with disabilities.

In a news release issued later on Thursday, Kirt said the big takeaway from the hearing was that Walters was “more focused on politics than in what’s really going to be best for Oklahoma children.”

“The reports show gaps in transparency at SDE and gave us more questions than answers about the authority for many of their actions in both grants and in how much weight we give to one-size-fits-all, high-stakes testing,” Kirt wrote. “Legislative Democrats continue to demand better.”

StateImpact Oklahoma is a partnership of Oklahoma’s public radio stations which relies on contributions from readers and listeners to fulfill its mission of public service to Oklahoma and beyond. Donate online.

Beth reports on education topics for StateImpact Oklahoma.
StateImpact Oklahoma reports on education, health, environment, and the intersection of government and everyday Oklahomans. It's a reporting project and collaboration of KGOU, KOSU, KWGS and KCCU, with broadcasts heard on NPR Member stations.
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