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Lankford seeks education vouchers for students

US Sen. James Lankford has filed federal legislation that would take unspent federal COVID funds and use the money to pay private-school tuition for low-income children who suffered COVID-learning loss.

“Kids in the lowest performing schools and in the lowest income communities were the most affected by the COVID-19 school shutdowns; they need education options and they need them now,” said Lankford, R-Oklahoma City. “Parents should have the authority and the opportunity to choose the best education options for their children, regardless of their ZIP code. Our bill takes unspent COVID-19-related education funds and allows parents to find the right education opportunities to fit their kids’ needs. These kids can’t just wait, and they don’t have a second chance at education.”

Lankford and US Sen. Tim Scott, RS.C., have introduced the Raising Expectations with Child Opportunity Vouchers for Educational Recovery (RECOVER) Act. The legislation is also supported by US Sens. Marco Rubio, R-Fla.; Tommy Tuberville, R-Ala.; Rick Scott, R-Fla.; Kevin Cramer, RN.D.; Cynthia Lummis, R-Wyo.; Marsha Blackburn, R-Tenn.; Bill Cassidy, R-La.; Mike Crapo, R-Idaho; Jim Risch, R-Idaho; and Thom Tillis, RN.C.

US Rep. Burgess Owens, R-Utah, has introduced companion legislation in the US House of Representatives.

“States and school districts have only spent a fraction of the education funds they received through the Democrats’ American Rescue Plan—leaving kids helpless as they struggle to recover from academic setbacks,” Scott said. “It’s clear that big-government bailouts won’t solve our education crisis. That’s why the RECOVER Act allows those funds to flow to a much better steward: parents. I urge all of my colleagues to join me on this bill that would empower parents to help their kids thrive once again.”

Owens said only 7 percent of $122 billion provided to schools nationwide through the federal American Rescue Plan has been spent and said “our one-size-fits-all system is leaving our most vulnerable kids behind and pushing parents out of the driver’s seat.”

Under the legislation, the unspent federal funds would be provided as Child Opportunity Scholarships targeted to low-income families. The legislation defines the scholarships as “direct financial assistance to the parent or guardian of an eligible student for a qualified educational expense in an amount reasonably commensurate with the negative educational impact intended to be addressed.”

The scholarship funds could be used for private school tuition, tutoring services, books and other curriculum materials, testing fees, and educational therapies for children with disabilities.

Eligible students include those from families earning up to 300 percent of the Federal Poverty Level, which is about $83,250 for a family of four in Oklahoma.

It was not immediately known how much federal COVID money remains unspent in Oklahoma that could be used for state students, but the figure may be substantial.

During a legislative hearing in January, officials with the Oklahoma State Department of Education told lawmakers that more than 70 percent of more than $2 billion in federal COVID money remained unspent in Oklahoma schools.

Federal COVID-bailout funds were provided to Oklahoma school districts through three rounds starting in 2020. The third round of funding came through the federal American Rescue Plan, which provided $1.34 billion to Oklahoma schools. As of January, only $82 million of Oklahoma schools’ American Rescue Plan funds had been spent.

If Lankford’s proposal were to become law, a significant share of students from across the state could potentially qualify.

A calculator developed by researchers with the Edunomics Lab at Georgetown University allows citizens to measure estimated COVID-related learning loss in local districts. In general, the longer schools were closed for in-person learning, the worse the learning loss and the greater the cost of catching up.

The calculator shows that in Tulsa Public Schools, which remained closed longer than nearly all schools in the state, students lost an average of 18 weeks of learning in math and 17 weeks of learning in reading, an amount roughly equivalent to half a school year.

The estimated cost of addressing learning loss in the Tulsa district alone was $47.3 million for math tutoring and $31.1 million for reading tutoring.

In the Oklahoma City school district students lost 19 weeks of learning in math and 18 weeks of learning in reading with an estimated cost of $49.8 million and $31.2 million, respectively, to cover the cost of tutoring required to regain that lost learning.

Significant learning loss was not isolated to the urban colors of Oklahoma, however. The Georgetown calculator also showed significant learning loss in some rural districts. In Anadarko, students lost an average of 15 weeks of learning in math and 12 weeks in reading. Students in Blackwell lost an average of 14 weeks of learning in math and 11 weeks in reading. In Cyril, students lost 13 weeks of math learning and 11 weeks in reading.

Learning loss in Oklahoma’s suburban schools was less pronounced, particularly in reading, but notable learning loss was still noted in math. Among Oklahoma City suburbs, Edmond students lost nine weeks of math learning, Moore students lost 11 weeks of math learning, and 13 weeks of math learning was lost in Norman.

Among Tulsa suburban school districts, Bixby students lost an average of eight weeks of learning in math, while the figure was 14 weeks in Jenks, 10 weeks at Union, and eight at Bixby.

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