An explosive report by OklahomaWatch and The Frontier finds millions of pandemic relief dollars given to Governor Stitt to support families with at-home learning is now being scrutinized in a federal investigation.
Reporters found that money given to families through the Bridge the Gap Digital Wallet program had no guardrails in place to ensure those dollars were spent on their kid’s education.
This led up to efforts this legislative session to make a similarly styled program, state law.
Secretary of Education Ryan Walters spoke at a conference in 2020 with the vendor that banked the money for parents.
“Number one, we had to help students and COVID. Number two, for the long term, again, we wanted these programs to be successful to show how empowering it can be to enagage families directly through funds, and to give this type of flexibility with how they use it,” he said.
That flexibility soon turned problematic.
The Frontier and Oklahoma Watch discovered nearly half a million dollars of the $8 million dollar Bridge the Gap Digital Wallet program was spent on gaming consoles, tvs, Christmas trees, and more.
The vendor ClassWallet told reporters it isn’t the platform’s role to ensure accountability.
ClassWallet also runs school voucher programs in other states.
A measure this session sought to establish a similar style of spending – creating education savings accounts.
But SB1647 bill failed to pass both chambers – facing bipartisan pushback, in part due to a lack of oversight.
“Could they take things that have nothing to do with education, would they be able to take that money and spend it as they wanted too, how is the state going to monitor that, and we never got any good answers to that,” said Senator Dwayne Pemberton, (R-Muskogee).
“There were other measures that talked about education service providers and there were really loose metrics as far as who would qualify and how they would qualify,” said Senatory Carri Hicks, (D-OKC).
SB1647 gave the state treasurer’s office the job of running the Oklahoma Empowerment Accounts program.
The bill made a way for the State Treasurer to contract with a private financial management firm or other private organization to administer the program.
“I kind of wonder if maybe that vendor would have been ClassWallet out of Florida,” said Sherrie Brown, member of Parent Legislative Action Committee.
Advocacy group PLAC has ongoing concerns about privatization efforts in education.
“Whether it’s in charter school issues, things that came up with EPIC. This fund is very much like their learning fund. time and time again, we’ve found there was considerable room for fraud and abuse and misuse of that money,” said Brown.
SB1647 is expected to return next legislative session.