Saturday, August 01, 2020

OCPA column: Governor addresses real need with education plan

Governor addresses real need with education plan
By Jonathan Small

Governor Kevin Stitt’s background as a businessman is often apparent in his understanding of financial realities that traditional politicians ignore. Hence, the governor’s willingness to save, rather than spend, much of last year’s budget surplus.

But Stitt’s “Stay in School” initiative highlights another benefit of his private-sector expertise: the governor’s understanding that Oklahoma cannot afford to squander human capital.

Stitt’s plan uses $10 million in federal COVID funding to help low-income families served by private schools. More than 1,500 Oklahoma families will be able to access $6,500 apiece to attend private schools.

Contrary to teacher-union wailing, Stitt isn’t “starving” public schools in the process. The $10 million is a small share of the state’s overall $360 million in federal funding designated for education response to COVID-19.

But even if that wasn’t the case, there’s good reason to praise Stitt’s bold leadership. A longstanding problem in Oklahoma (and nationwide) is the existence of a huge academic achievement gap between low-income students in the urban core and their counterparts from higher-income households.

That gap is often a canyon. To cite just one brutal example, just 22 male African American senior students finished Tulsa Public Schools college-ready in 2015, based on ACT testing. Not 22 percent, mind you, but 22 young men—period.

That gap exists not because those children are somehow incapable of learning, but because the system fails them. And experts agree the COVID shutdown last spring made things worse. Across Oklahoma, many schools effectively stopped teaching in March. Higher-income families could afford to offset that loss with private tutoring or the purchase of quality online programing, but lower-income students were often left to fend for themselves.

Often—but not always.

Some of Oklahoma’s private schools had stepped up to the plate long before anyone had heard of COVID. Crossover Preparatory Academy serves mostly working-class minority male students in grades six through nine in north Tulsa. Those students continued to learn even after public schools effectively shut down. So did homeless children served by Positive Tomorrows in Oklahoma City and the low-income, predominately minority students served by Cristo Rey OKC Catholic High School.

Students at all three of those schools are expected to benefit from Stitt’s “Stay in School” initiative.

In contrast, many of Oklahoma’s urban schools are expected to remain closed and offer only online learning for at least nine weeks of this school year. An analysis by consultants at McKinsey and Company estimated that if in-class instruction does not resume until January 2021, low-income students will lose more than a full year of learning because of poor quality or non-existent online instruction.

The “COVID slide” has been called the “summer slide on steroids.” Stitt’s plan provides real hope to needy families who would otherwise be dragged down by that academic avalanche.

Jonathan Small serves as president of the Oklahoma Council of Public Affairs.


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