Governor's office sharply criticized for management of federal education funds
State officials are being called out by the inspector general of the U.S. Department of Education for irregularities in the disbursal of federal dollars allocated to governors to support education during the COVID-19 pandemic. A recently released investigative audit report details the findings and corrective action required.
Dick Pryor: This is Capitol Insider taking you inside politics, policy and government in Oklahoma. I'm Dick Pryor with Quorum Call publisher Shawn Ashley. Shawn, we're going to talk about something a little bit complicated. The Stitt administration has less than 30 days to respond to an investigative audit by the U.S. Department of Education inspector general, an audit that is critical of the state's handling of federal pandemic relief funds for education. Now, this audit shows Oklahoma did not award all of its GEER grant funds in accordance with federal law and grant conditions. What exactly is the inspector general questioning?
Shawn Ashley: Oklahoma received $39.9 million in Governor's Emergency Education Relief or GEER funds that were to be used to support education that was impacted by COVID-19 in 2020 and 2021. The Office of Inspector General raised concern about spending in four of the state's five programs: the Bridge the Gap Digital Wallet, which was to provide up to 5,000 low-income Oklahoma families with $1,500 grants to purchase materials for students and a $10 million private school voucher program for low-income students. Another program to provide statewide access to digital content for core courses and advanced coursework to students in kindergarten through 12th grade through the Learn Anywhere Oklahoma initiative. And then another program that paid for tuition for fast tracked coursework for 375 students and training programs for in-demand jobs such as those in health care.
Dick Pryor: The audit was not entirely critical. Some of the money was apparently administered properly.
Shawn Ashley: Yes, this money was allocated to the governors of each state. And in the case of Oklahoma, Governor Kevin Stitt took $8 million of the $39.9 million that he received and directed that to the Oklahoma State Department of Education. Now, the State Department of Education used that money to support school districts throughout the state that were most significantly impacted by the coronavirus. And what the audit showed was that the State Department of Education established a sound application process for that money, as well as continued monitoring of its usage once it was distributed across the state.
Dick Pryor: What's the impact of all of this? Well, the audit report requires the state to either show that more than $650,000 in GEER funds were properly used for education purposes or return the money.
Shawn Ashley: That's right. Now, most of that comes from the Bridge the Gap Digital Wallet. That money that was to provide low-income families with grants to purchase materials for students ahead of the 2020-21 school year. Now, according to the audit, portions of that money were not used to purchase school supplies. Instead, they purchased non-educational items, including televisions, air conditioners and Christmas trees, among other things.
Dick Pryor: What's been the response from the governor's office to the concerns expressed in the inspector general's audit?
Shawn Ashley: Well, the governor's office said Governor Stitt is committed to transparency and accountability in state government. And earlier this year, the state had an opportunity to review the inspector general's findings. And in doing so, the state responded, blaming a contractor hired to administer the programs. But that argument was rejected by the inspector general's office. According to the inspector general's office, Oklahoma did not take advantage of an internal control option in that vendor's programing, nor did it perform a review of the initiative's expenditures. As the recipient of the GEER funds, the inspector general said Oklahoma was responsible for ensuring that its grant funds were used properly.
Dick Pryor: Has the State Department of Education weighed in on this controversy?
Shawn Ashley: No, the department has not. But Superintendent of Public Instruction Joy Hofmeister, who is running as a Democrat against Stitt for governor, said the audit further illustrates problems within Stitt's administration.
Dick Pryor: And lots more to come on this story. Thanks, Shawn.
Shawn Ashley: You're very welcome.
Dick Pryor: If you have questions, e-mail them to firstname.lastname@example.org or contact us on Twitter @kgounews and @QuorumCallShawn. Until next time, with Shawn Ashley, I'm Dick Pryor.