A new news story this week about the Oklahoma government’s use — and misuse — of $8 million in federal pandemic money shows more issues with the state’s financial oversight and fiscal responsibility.
Reporting from Oklahoma Watch and The Frontier shows that with $18 million in federal Governor’s Emergency Education Relief funds (GEER) to spend at the start of the pandemic, Gov. Kevin Stitt put Ryan Walters, then executive director of educational nonprofit Every Kid Counts Oklahoma, in charge of overseeing the money’s disbursal.
Walters and other state officials gave a contract to Florida-based ClassWallet — without going through a competitive bid process — allowing the company to distribute grants from the GEER money in a program the state called the Bridge the Gap Digital Wallet program.
While $8 million of the money was meant to fund education resources for individual students, Walters did not set any limits or guidelines on how families could use the money — when ClassWallet asked for his thoughts on limitations, Walters gave “blanket approval” to any item a family wanted to purchase through approved vendors. Families ended up spending about half a million dollars of the money on non-school-related goods like TVs or exercise equipment.
“Oklahoma ultimately returned $2.9 million in unspent relief money to the federal government intended to support students and teachers. ClassWallet ended the Bridge the Gap program one day early after federal investigators and attorneys for the state discovered the company was operating on an expired contract with almost no government supervision,” the story from Oklahoma Watch and The Frontier says.
There’s a lot more details to this story — more than we have room to discuss here — but ultimately, the state committed a massive oversight in distributing this money. And the reporting shows that multiple families who did receive the money and tried to use it as intended were met with questions that were never answered by ClassWallet or Stitt’s chain of command.
The oversight was not on the families’ parts; according to the reporting, they were given federal money to spend with few guidelines.
The oversight was on behalf of the state government — Stitt, Walters and others — who allowed this federal money to go out with few guidelines despite having the manpower to create oversight.
The oversight was on behalf of Walters, who went on to claim the program was a success and to tout its supposed success as reason for us to trust the Stitt administration and the Oklahoma government in distributing school vouchers or school choice funding.
The state now claims to be pursuing legal action against ClassWallet
But while ClassWallet made plenty of mistakes in this process, it’s clear that the ultimate failure was on behalf of the state, which failed to set limits on spending for this money even when ClassWallet asked what the limits were.
The Stitt administration has proven reckless with taxpayer money — via the Swadley’s fiasco — and with federal funds via this GEER spending. What is even more offensive than the mishandling of the money is the administration’s intent that the ClassWallet situation serve as a model for “school choice” funding, and that Stitt’s spokespeople have, on Twitter this week, used the media’s reporting on the GEER spending to say various news outlets are attempting to “prevent school choice in Oklahoma.”
The debate over school choice is for another day; the debate over fiscal responsibility is happening now. The Stitt administration has deflected blame and questions this week over money that could and should have made a difference for more families. Instead, the administration allowed it to be mishandled.