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Oklahoma State Education Board draws heated public comment as Walters courts controversy

 State Superintendent of Public Instruction Ryan Walters listens to public commenters during the June 22, 2023 State Board of Education meeting.
Beth Wallis
StateImpact Oklahoma
State Superintendent of Public Instruction Ryan Walters listens to public commenters during the June 22, 2023 State Board of Education meeting.

Though most schools’ accreditation status was voted on at Thursday’s State School Board meeting, two schools will have to wait until August for their fate to be decided.

Tulsa Public Schools and Infinity Generation Generals Preparatory School out of Oklahoma City will have their accreditation reviewed at next month’s board meeting. TPS has been under fire from State Superintendent Ryan Walters, who says the “severity” of the district’s issues warrants another month of review before evaluating a potential downgrade.

Walters was later asked if an all-out revoking of TPS’ accreditation status was an option the board was considering, and Walters responded that “all possible actions are on the table with Tulsa Public Schools.” Losing accreditation would mean one of the two largest school districts in Oklahoma would have to shut its doors.

TPS parent Ashley Daly became emotional during her public comment period, saying while the school does “need a lot of help,” accreditation downgrades are not the way to accomplish that.

“I just can’t believe you won’t talk to us and help us. This is not how you treat parents,” Daly said. “There are 33,000 kids and just as many parents there too, right? Like, you’re treating that many of us like you don’t care that we know if we’re going to school in two weeks. That is unethical and unkind. … You have to talk to us. And act kind. I can’t believe I have to say that.”

The department cites two reasons for the extra reviewing of TPS’ accreditation: a report was turned in late, and an embezzlement case currently under investigation. Tulsa wasn’t notified of the second deficiency until mid-July.

TPS self-reported last year about the embezzlement, noting improper transactions in its talent management department. An audit revealed $364,000 in questionable contracts with vendors — a scheme spearheaded by the department’s director, Devin Fletcher.

Walters has also vocalised several other reasons for reviewing TPS, saying the district hasn’t been specific enough about reporting on its diversity, equity and inclusion spending; alleging religious liberty violations after a school board member was reprimanded for publicly praying at a graduation; and citing low test scores.

Infinity shut its doors in December and is looking to reopen next month, but the department is recommending the district’s accreditation be pulled for mismanagement. As a private school, it can still operate without accreditation in Oklahoma.

Infinity superintendent Gina Darby implored the board for another month to present her evidence in defense of the school, to which the board agreed unanimously.

“Please do not make a decision today based on what the accreditation director is saying, because there is evidence behind the things that he’s not giving you all,” Darby said. “And I would like the opportunity to be able to provide that.”

‘Root for God’

During Walters’ superintendent update portion of the meeting, he informed the board he’d instructed his staff to enforce a state law requiring a moment of silence “so that kids can pray if they choose to.” Oklahoma State Department of Education staff will annually verify the moment of silence is happening at every district.

Religion in schools was also a substantial theme during the public comment period. Oklahoma Conservative Political Action Committee president Bob Lynn criticized TPS for reprimanding its board member for the public prayer.

“[TPS has] indicated that they have absolutely no understanding of the great foundation we have as Americans, and Western civilization, and the biblical and academic foundations in Western civilization,” Lynn said. “You cannot have a school on American soil that does not read the Bible to its students. That would be un-American.”

Nadine Smith, a commenter who said she taught in Los Angeles and Chicago, also gave her thoughts on the role of religion in classrooms.

“We have to put God first, and I’m for putting God back into the schools because we definitely need him,” Smith said. “Root for God. And root for this country. Not Allah, not Buddha, root for God.”

Another commenter, Ashley Hall, compared Ryan Walters to David in the biblical story of David and Goliath, and called for God to be “in charge.”

“When we as a society decided to take God out of the classrooms, the Bible out of the classrooms, that was truly the beginning of the decay in our society,” Hall said.

The issue of separation of church and state has been a theme at several recent state school board meetings. In February, Walters announcedthe formation of a blue-ribbon committee to “advise and recommend guidance to local school systems on how to protect every student and parents’ freedom to worship.”

The committee was formed following an open letter to the superintendent by faith leaders, as well as OCPAC president Bob Lynn. None of the faith leaders espouse a religion other than Christianity, and one of the six represented organizations is founded on Christian nationalism.

The committee issued its recommendations in June: that the department enforce existing law regarding the daily moment of silence schools take part in — saying it should be a full minute and include an explicit opportunity for prayer; require every public school classroom in the state to display a copy of the Ten Commandments; and require a “western civilization” course for graduation “to strengthen the heritage which was integral to the nation’s founding and its western culture, as well as to foster gratitude and informed citizenship.”

During that meeting, Walters also made the case against the separation of church and state.

“A long history of Supreme Court positions have created, in fact, a state-sponsored religion: Atheism,” Walters said at the June meeting. “And it is indefensible in a place like Oklahoma that we would allow this to happen.”

The board’s next regular meeting is scheduled for Aug. 24.

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Beth Wallis is StateImpact Oklahoma's education reporter.
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