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'We need to keep some level of decorum': Oklahoma State Board of Education meeting features political theatrics, little policy talk

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The Oklahoma State Board of Education meets on July 28, 2022.

Tulsa and Mustang Public Schools became the first Oklahoma school districts to face consequences for Oklahoma’s so-called critical race theory ban, Thursday.

The districts were given an accreditation warning for violating Oklahoma’s House Bill 1775, a controversial law governing the teaching of racial and sexual concepts.

Another private school called Infinity Generation Preparatory – recommended for probation because of a litany of financial and student record reporting issues – was given the same warning.

But there were fireworks between those punishments. Oklahoma’s State Board of Education spent hours lobbing thinly veiled political attacks and arguments in a meeting primarily about accrediting the state’s K-12 schools.

The board – almost entirely appointed by Gov. Kevin Stitt – ultimately approved accreditation for more than 1,000 school sites across the state, but spent hours of time arguing about the status of a small handful. There was comparatively little discussion about actual education policy inside Oklahoma classrooms.

Accreditation is a complex and thorough process. Oklahoma’s State Department of Education reviews a long list of metrics and determines if schools are complying with federal and state rules and regulations.

There are essentially five levels of accreditation:

  • Accreditation with no deficiencies
  • Accreditation one deficiency 
  • Accreditation with multiple deficiencies
  • Accreditation with warning
  • Accreditation with probation

Schools with chronic issues could eventually have their accreditation revoked, and those toward the bottom of the above scale face additional oversights from Oklahoma’s State Department of Education.

Here is some of what happened around discussion of accreditation for specific school districts and the one private institution:

Tulsa Public Schools

The Oklahoma State Board of Education voted to add a warning to Tulsa Public Schools’ accreditation.

The move comes after Tulsa Memorial High School science teacher Amy Cook complained to the state Department of Education about what she said was a violation of HB 1775. Cook was previously investigated by TPS for allegedly setting up a prayer corner in her classroom and telling a student that they would “burn in Hell.”

Tulsa activist Joyce Williams pleaded with the board before it voted to show evidence of the violation, which it hasn’t released.

“If there’s evidence, please be transparent and show it. But I am against any possibility of penalizing Tulsa Public Schools, and believe me, I’m somebody who’s at all of the board meetings, and I raise questions,” Williams said.

The board nevertheless voted 4-2 to add the warning to TPS’ accreditation.

"Accredited with warning is sufficient in this case because we need to send a message," board member Estela Hernandez said during the meeting. She was joined in voting for the warning by members Jennifer Monies, Brian Bobek and Sarah Lepak.

Board member Carlisha Williams Bradley, who voted no along with State Superintendent Joy Hofmeister, expressed shock at the singling out of TPS.

“I am deeply unsettled by what just happened,” Williams Bradley said. “You chose Tulsa Public Schools out of this list of I don’t even know how many districts we just went through. Tulsa is the largest district in our state, and it is also filled with predominantly students of color as we talk about 1775. It’s infuriating to sit in this seat.”

"It is an escalation that feels rather emotional," Hofmeister said of the decision to go to a warning rather than just knock the district for a deficiency.

The warning means TPS is labeled as having a serious district wide problem that detracts from learning. The implications for the future and students are unclear, but the district will have to work with state officials to improve its accreditation status. A total of 11 districts were given accreditation with warnings.

In response, the American Civil Liberties Union of Oklahoma said, “Make no mistake: Tulsa Public Schools is just the beginning. The longer HB 1775 is in effect, the more accusations we will see.”

TPS sent a lengthy statement to reporters following the meeting:

“In Tulsa, we are teaching our children an accurate - and at times painful, difficult and uncomfortable - history about our shared human experience,” the statement said. “We also teach in a beautifully diverse community and need our team to work together to be prepared to do that well.”

That was the reason for a training that state officials found to be in violation of HB 1775 given by a third party.

“It is notable that Governor Stitt’s state board of education spent significant time today talking about the complaints of one teacher in our district (among the hundreds of accreditation deficiencies statewide) and no time on the catastrophic teacher shortage facing every district in our state,” the statement said.

Mustang Public Schools

Mustang Public Schools was another district called out.

The district was recommended for accreditation with deficiency by the State Department of Education. It was ultimately accredited with warning by a 4-2 vote, along the same lines as the Tulsa vote.

The Oklahoman reported Mustang investigated its HB 1775 complaint internally. It involved an in-class team building activity at Mustang Middle School in January.

"The intent of the lesson from the teacher was to show that each student has different experiences in life," a report from Mustang said. "It was also discussed how important it is to treat others with kindness and respect, since people never really know what other people are going through."

Hofmeister and Williams Bradley were similarly critical of the board’s decision to vote on Mustang’s status.

The district wrote in a lengthy statement that it was surprised by the decision:

“We were shocked to learn of this action,” Superintendent Charles Bradley said in the statement. “Looking at the agenda item as posted by the State Board, I do not know how a reasonable person could discern that this was coming. We were as surprised as anyone to hear our name mentioned today. After watching the replay of the State Board meeting, it appears that at least one of the Board members, including one who made the motion to increase the penalty, was seemingly unaware that we were included on the agenda.”

“We are disheartened that this single outlier event has resulted in this harsh action,” Superintendent Bradley said in the statement. “We acted expediently to resolve the complaint to the complainant’s satisfaction, and yet no consideration was given by the State Board to our response to this event. With the Board action to increase the penalty above the recommendation, I seriously question the criteria for these accreditation categories. We are eager to work with the State Department to understand why this decision was made.”

Infinity Generation

The board spent more than an hour discussing potential probation for an Oklahoma City private school, Infinity Generation Generals Preparatory School.

Department of Education officials accused the school of poor fiscal management and misrepresenting its size when applying for federal grant programs.

The school’s founder Gina Darby accused the department of attacking her and her school because of her ties to Stitt, who will face off against Hofmeister in the gubernatorial election in November after she switched parties.

At one point, the board’s attorney Travis Jett stopped Darby in the midst of her attack, saying, “we need some level of decorum.”

Ultimately, the board voted to give the private school an accreditation warning, despite a recommendation the school be put on probation.

Epic Charter School

Ironically, there was no discussion of the probation handed down to Epic Charter School during the meeting, or any of the other eight schools given accreditation probation.

Epic was given probation for more than a dozen issues related to state law compliance, finances and accusations of bullying that were laid out in a report last month.

This was the second time Epic Charter School has faced an accreditation probation recommendation from the state in recent years. The previous recommendation was in November 2020.

Hofmeister said she would recommend probation again at this meeting last month.

Other items of note

  • The board approved a new Special Education Handbook related to policies and procedures for special education.
  • Secretary of Education Ryan Walters addressed the board during the public comment portion of the meeting and called for members to review the superintendent credentials of Tulsa’s Deborah Gist. He and Stitt have been longtime critics of the Tulsa superintendent.
Robby Korth joined StateImpact Oklahoma in October 2019, focusing on education reporting.
Before joining Public Radio Tulsa, Elizabeth Caldwell was a freelance reporter and a teacher
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