OKLAHOMA CITY — Oklahoma’s secretary of education says it’s time for Oklahomans to have a “robust” discussion about the role federal funds play in local schools and to consider whether “strings attached” by Washington, D.C., politicians are worth it, even as school advocates warn that gutting federal funding will devastate urban and rural districts alike.

Ryan Walters said it may be time to start rejecting federal funding that flows to local schools, particularly if those funds dictate what must be taught, have ties to federal testing mandates and aren’t best for kids.

“That requires us to do a deep dive and have a conversation on is our money being spent as efficiently as possible and whether we want to take certain federal dollars,” he said.

On average, federal funding makes up nearly 10% of the total current revenue for Oklahoma school districts. It funds day-to-day operations such as personnel who help with federally funded programs for reading assistance, special education and child nutrition. Federal funds also help districts located on federal or tribal lands offset their diminished local tax base, said Shawn Hime, executive director of the State School Boards Association.

Walters, meanwhile, has told supporters that he’s already begun “phasing away us using" federal dollars.

When reached by phone, Walters said he doesn’t know how much federal funding he’s rejected since being appointed by Gov. Kevin Stitt as the state’s secretary of education. He said he has very little purview over federal grants because they’re housed under the State Department of Education and under the oversight of state Superintendent Joy Hofmeister. However, he’s actively been reviewing them to learn “what are the strings attached.”

Walters, who is running to become the next state superintendent, said if he’s elected, he’d have much more power over those. He said with Oklahoma continually ranking in the bottom five of nearly every education category for student outcomes, taxpayers need an accurate, transparent picture of all the money received, where it goes and “what strings are attached.” It’s time, he said, to analyze every federal dollar and whether there’s a benefit.

“What’s the cost that’s come to Oklahoma taxpayers because a lot of times we have to agree to absorb some of the cost with state and local dollars, and we need to make sure that what we’re doing is providing every kid a great education and not accepting D.C. and Joe Biden solutions to improving education because frankly, Joe Biden and Washington, D.C., don’t have a clue about how to improve Oklahoma education,” Walters said.

He said that belief wouldn’t change even if Republicans control the White House.

Walters said oftentimes federal government programs come under the guise of giving money, but “then they attach strings that are attached to indoctrination.”

Walters specifically cited a federal social studies curriculum grant that he said includes the teaching of critical race theory because it requires teaching the concepts of diversity, equity and inclusion. He also cited federal grants that are closely tied to standardized assessment mandates.

In an email, Kyle Reynolds, Woodward Public Schools superintendent, said he’s heard Walters compare the district’s social-emotional learning, or SEL, strategies administered through a federal Project AWARE grant to critical race theory teachings. In the first three years of the grant, the strategies have reduced Reynolds' district’s discipline referrals by 40%, improved attendance, increased classroom time and improved students’ ability to focus and study better.

“There is no logical connection between these two concepts, which means the secretary is either ill-informed or maliciously trying to villainize SEL, for what purpose I cannot fathom,” he said. “Trying to equate SEL with (critical race theory) is a travesty and an embarrassment."

The district also uses the five-year grant to raise awareness of mental health issues. That grant allowed district officials to hire a licensed mental health provider who, with parental permission, sees about 25 to 30 students a week.

For the 2021-22 school year, Woodward Public Schools’ federal revenue was about 24% of its budget — or over $5.6 million, Reynolds said in an email.

The district uses a federal grant to support, encourage and enable students to attend college. Another federal grant has allowed it to establish an after-school program at its three elementary schools and early childhood center that integrates science, technology, reading, engineering, arts and math activities.

“I struggle to understand the thought process behind any effort to reduce or do away with federal funding, especially considering the fact that our state seems unwilling to invest sufficient funding in education,” Reynolds said.

Though Oklahoma lawmakers have touted recent historic investments in public education, the state consistently ranks in the bottom five in how well it funds schools.

Hime, with the state School Boards Association, said the federal government funds education at a ratio based on what the state invests.

He said because Oklahoma funds education at a “very low rate” compared to most other states, like Texas and Kansas, its schools get less federal funding.

Other states would further see their shares increase if Walters rejects federal funding, and advocates say it’s not clear how Oklahoma would bridge the funding gap, or whether it would be exempt from federal education requirements.

State Sen. Chuck Hall, R-Perry, said he won’t speculate on who will win November’s superintendent election.

“What I can tell you is that the Oklahoma Constitution is very clear that the Legislature writes the budget for the state,” said Hall, who serves as vice chair of appropriations.

That federal funding, he said, makes up part of the state budget.

In Norman Public Schools, federal funding is 12% — or about $16.5 million — of the total revenues received in budget year 2022. The federal funds are “woven” throughout the district and pay for things like free and reduced-price lunches, American Indian education programs, special education programs, gifted and talented programs, dropout prevention programs, math and reading remediation, parent and family engagement activities, staff development and counselors, the district said.

“The impact of losing federal funds would be significant and severe,” said spokesman Wes Moody in an email. “It would be very unlikely the district could make up for that lost revenue, and as such those programs — and importantly the families and students who benefit from them — would be greatly impacted.”

Tanya Jones, superintendent of Tahlequah Public Schools, said federal money is about $13.8 million — or 31% — of the district’s entire budget.

Federal funds pay for about 100 employees in the district, including prekindergarten teachers and assistants, special education teachers and staff, literacy and art teachers, anti-bullying coordinators and school counselors.

The impact of losing federal funding would be “devastating,” she said in an email. She said the funding would be lost without any specific way to make up that revenue. Cuts to services and staff would be inevitable.

“Our students would go without academic, emotional and safety services,” Jones said. “Achievement would decrease. Class sizes would go up. We would lose our early childhood program.”

Max Bryan and Kim Poindexter contributed to this report.

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