Oklahoma's top education official embraces culture wars
OKLAHOMA CITY (AP) — When Oklahoma’s newly elected Republican head of public schools campaigned for the job last fall, he ran on a platform of fighting “woke ideology” in public schools, banning certain books from school libraries, empowering parents with school choice and getting rid of “radical leftists” he claims were indoctrinating children in classrooms across the state.
While the political strategy was successful and Ryan Walters won the race for superintendent of public instruction by nearly 15 percentage points, many expected him to pivot toward more substantive education policy: working with lawmakers to improve education outcomes and overseeing the state’s largest — and most-funded — agency.
Instead, Walters, a former public school teacher from McAlester, has doubled down on his political rhetoric, focusing his energy on culture-war issues like targeting transgender athletes in schools, banning books and fighting what he calls “Joe Biden’s radical agenda."
In doing so, the 37-year-old political newcomer has frustrated even his fellow Republicans in the Legislature, who have publicly voiced concern about whether Walters can effectively improve public education in Oklahoma, which consistently scores below the national average on most standardized testing and where average scores have declined in recent years.
State Rep. Mark McBride, a veteran Republican lawmaker who heads a key education budget committee in the House, said he's disappointed Walters has continued to engage in inflammatory commentary and take advice from his campaign consultant instead of working with lawmakers on policy.
“If he would come over here and talk to us instead of a political hack, I think it would move the state forward and move education forward,” said McBride, who said Walters' recent refusal of an invitation to address a committee hearing was the first time in his 11 years in the House that an agency head had done so.
Even Senate President Pro Tempore Greg Treat, who said he considers Walters a friend, said he's turned off by Walters' “fiery” rhetoric.
“I wish we could get down into the details of trying to deliver on school choice and a real teacher pay raise,” Treat said.
In an editorial, the state's largest newspaper, The Oklahoman, called on Walters to end the divisive rhetoric or resign from office.
Walters is a strong supporter of a voucher-style plan that would allow parents to use taxpayer money to homeschool their children or send them to private schools, even religious ones. The issue is a major one the Republican-controlled Legislature is considering this year amid bipartisan opposition. But several lawmakers working on the proposal say Walters has had little, if any, input.
For his part, Walters said he's got “great support” in the House and Senate and that he's continuing to work with lawmakers to get some kind of voucher proposal, which he calls school choice, to the governor's desk.
“I’m going to continue to fight for that in both the Senate and the House, and we’re working closely to get this done,” he said.
He also proposed a new teacher recruitment pilot program that includes a $50,000 sign-on bonus for new teachers in certain instructional areas who spend at least five years in the classroom.
While many public school teachers and administrators fiercely oppose the idea of sending public money to private schools, several who spoke to The Associated Press say they're more concerned about Walters' talking points and his threats to punish teachers.
“I would say fear is the most poignant emotion that is felt,” said Jaime Lee, a ninth-grade U.S. government and history teacher in the Tulsa suburb of Bixby.
She said many teachers are afraid of violating a state law approved two years ago that prohibits the teaching of certain concepts of race and racism, commonly referred to as an “anti-critical race theory law,” which Walters vowed to strongly enforce. Critical race theory, a way of thinking about America's history through the lens of racism that is generally taught at the university level, recently morphed across the country from an obscure academic discussion point on the left into a political rallying cry on the right.
“It’s frustrating as a teacher," Lee said.
Those fears were heightened earlier this year when Walters threatened to revoke a Norman teacher's teaching certificate because she provided her high school students with a QR code that linked to the Brooklyn Public Library's section of banned books.
Walters also has not shied away from his support of private Christian schools. He even encouraged a state board to approve what would be the nation's first religious charter school, despite an explicit prohibition in the state constitution and the state's Republican attorney general's warnings.
After a parent and some ministers raised concerns to the board, Walters dismissed them as “radical leftists” who hate the Catholic church.
“(Walters) just could not help himself but interject with very inflammatory, partisan language,” said Erika Wright, a mother of two children in public school and the leader of the Oklahoma Rural Schools Coalition who spoke to the board. “I'm a Republican. I'm not a radical leftist.”
Walters also has faced criticism for his previous work as Republican Gov. Kevin Stitt's secretary of education, when he had oversight of a program to distribute federal coronavirus relief funds intended for education. A scathing federal audit of the program recommended the state return nearly $653,000 it said families had spent on items like Xbox gaming systems, grills and televisions.
Some of Walters' other actions have been seen as petty digs toward educators, like when just a month into the job, he removed portraits of members of the Educators Hall of Fame that had been hanging for decades in the Department of Education building. He replaced them with artwork from students.
He also faced criticism for a tweet in December that showed his family posing with a white Santa Claus and said: “No woke Santa this year :).” Many interpreted the message as a thinly veiled racist response to news stories at the time about a Black Oklahoman who dressed as Santa, although Walters rejected any suggestion the tweet was racist.
Despite the controversy, Stitt, who is serving his second term as governor, said he continues to have confidence in Walters.
“I think he’s easy to target, maybe, and I think he has some social media stuff," Stitt said. “I know his heart, and his heart is to improve education in Oklahoma and to empower parents.”
Follow Sean Murphy on Twitter: @apseanmurphy