If lawmakers want to know where every dollar in education goes, they need to look at the local school district budgets, not the state education department.
Gov. Kevin Stitt’s request for an investigative audit of the Oklahoma Education Department by State Auditor and Inspector Cindy Byrd weaponizes such audits and ignores the financial structure of local control.
We do not oppose transparency, accountability or reform. But this audit won’t get at the questions or criticisms of public education. It is playing political chess before next year’s election.
State Superintendent Joy Hofmeister is term-limited, but Stitt’s appointed Secretary of Education, Ryan Walters, wants the job.
This type of audit has never been done in Oklahoma’s history and may be a first in the nation, Byrd said. Meaning it will be costly and time-consuming.
Stitt’s request stems from a critical state audit last year of the business practices of Epic Charter Schools co-founders, who became targets of federal and state criminal investigations. They were ordered by the state auditor to pay back $11.2 million, and several recommendations were made to prevent such mismanagement.
In response, Stitt and 22 Republican lawmakers vowed in November to go after the Oklahoma Department of Education. It was a bizarre and out-of-touch reaction that didn’t address Epic’s underlying issues.
The education department wasn’t responsible for Epic’s problems. If anything, lawmakers cut the state agency out of oversight of the virtual charter school.
That was nearly a year ago. Since then, Epic has not paid back the state and most of the auditor’s recommendations — like having one education oversight board — have been disregarded.
In ordering the audit, Stitt said, “As we make record investments in our public education system, students and parents deserve to know that their schools are spending our tax dollars appropriately and in accordance with the law.”
If that’s true, Stitt and lawmakers need to look at the local level, not the state.
Oklahoma set up its education system to be managed and overseen by locally elected board members.
The state education department sets standards in curriculum, testing and graduation; gathers data such as demographics; and allocates funding provided by the Legislature based on average daily membership in districts.
It does not financially audit each district or provide direct student services — that’s a local school board’s job.
Nearly all local districts go through some form of independent auditing; many have several different types of tracking for earmarked funds. The state department can intervene if red flags are raised, but it doesn’t have the resources for annually auditing several hundred districts.
A state investigative audit of this magnitude ought to be used for serious criminal allegations; none have been made.
We want education reforms that make sense and come from a place of neutrality, not from a political power grab.