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‘Terrorist’ teacher unions, communication gaps and federal grant anxiety: State Superintendent Ryan Walters’ legislative hearing

State Superintendent Ryan Walters listens to a presentation at the February 2023 State Board of Education meeting.
Beth Wallis
StateImpact Oklahoma
State Superintendent Ryan Walters listens to a presentation at the February 2023 State Board of Education meeting.

State Superintendent Ryan Walters addressed a packed room of lawmakers for two and half hours Monday about his policy proposals and rhetoric — and things got heated.

Walters called teacher unions “terrorist organizations” and said former Superintendent Joy Hofmeister had left the State Department of Education an “absolute dumpster fire,” that she “ran… into the ground.”

After initially refusing invitations to speak to the House Education Appropriations and Budget committee, Walters agreed to the hearing — which ended abruptly after vice chairman Rep. Ryan Martinez (R-Edmond) gaveled for an adjournment amid Democrats’ outraged responses to Walters’ rhetoric on indoctrination in the classroom.

Lawmakers on both sides of the aisle pressed Walters on an array of topics, including the status of federal grant applications, the mass exodus from his agency, a lack of responsiveness from his department, and continued inflammatory rhetoric. On the latter, Walters largely doubled down.

“[Teachers are] looking to you to be a leader, to acknowledge what it is that they do in the classroom without adding what we’ve talked about a lot here, which is the indoctrination rhetoric,” Minority Leader Cyndi Munson (D-Oklahoma City) said. “This in particular, it’s driving them out of the classroom… So can we at some point, as we put together plans to support our teachers, put that rhetoric away so we can focus on the things they really need and listen to these teachers who are leaving the classroom?”

“So I will keep my campaign promises that I made to every voter that I will get indoctrination out of the classroom,” Walters responded. “That is a non-negotiable for me. I will always fight for parents. I’ll always fight for truth. That’s non-negotiable. I will always fight the radical Biden administration.”

Rep. Regina Goodwin (D-Tulsa) also spoke out against Walters’ rhetoric.

“I know your job is difficult, and I do not understand how you think taking up some of your time with all of that other junk somehow advances and closes the academic performance gap of our students,” Goodwin said. “Help me with your plan. Don’t do anymore flame throwing. Just talk about, really, how you are committed to that. And if you’re not committed to that, what kind of talk with Jesus do you have to have tonight to get on track?”

Rep. Monroe Nichols (D-Tulsa) asked the superintendent to provide data showing a correlation between “indoctrination” and academic outcomes, following a comment Walters made about getting indoctrination out of the classroom and getting “a focus back on academics.” As with several other requested reports that were added to a list of items due May 8 and May 15 from the superintendent, Nichols requested the evidence be put on the list.

“I would love to sit down with you, Representative Nichols, and go through all this and what we’re seeing, what we’re hearing,” Walters answered. “I think that would be absolutely great.”

Teacher unions as ‘terrorist organizations’

Several lawmakers took issue with Walters saying he doesn’t negotiate with teachers’ unions because they’re “terrorist organizations.”

“I’m really curious why you would make that kind of connection between the two,” Nichols said. “Terrorists blow up buildings, kill innocent people.”

Walters answered that teacher unions were “sabotaging” students during the pandemic, claiming they “fought to keep schools closed.”

“They said, ‘if you pay us enough money, if you take enough federal dollars and pay us, we’ll open the schools back up,’” Walters said. “We had kids struggling tremendously at home. We had suicide rates going through the roof. … And so that right there, you were hurting kids intentionally to shake down the federal government for money. That’s a terrorist organization in my book.”

The Oklahoma Education Association later responded, saying Walters’ “inflammatory and demonizing rhetoric continues to escalate in ways that endanger our educators and undermine public education.”

The Oklahoman newspaper reports though some districts offered incentives to staff for exceptional work or for hazard pay during that period in the pandemic, OEA said there was no statewide push from the organization.

Rep. Forrest Bennett (D-Oklahoma City) also took issue with the reasoning behind the superintendent’s extreme characterization of professional educator organizations, noting the general uncertainty during the early pandemic days and “considerable risk” for teachers in the classroom.

The state of the State Department of Education

Lawmakers also voiced concerns about a lack of responsiveness and prompt communication from the superintendent’s agency. Rep. Toni Hasenback (R-Elgin) asked the superintendent what the response time was for emails, calls and teachers getting certificates from the department.

Walters responded by saying the agency had “no process in place” to address the influx of requests coming in at the end of the spring semester and acknowledged his staff was “overburdened.”

The superintendent reported during his tenure, there have been 37 resignations and seven firings of the total 416 agency positions.

Other Republicans also noted a lack in responsiveness from Walters’ office. Rep. Scott Fetgatter (R-Okmulgee) said despite talking with Walters at the beginning of the legislative session about visiting his district and talking to superintendents, there’s been only silence from the agency.

“I’ve sent a few messages and left a few phone calls, voicemails, and [I] have yet to have a date,” Fetgatter said.

Fetgatter asked if the May 8 and May 15 report deadlines set for Walters during the hearing could also be potential dates for Walters to fulfill his visit. Walters responded affirmatively.

Walters asserted several times he continues to have open communication with superintendents around the state, saying he meets with superintendents “every single week,” and referred to an April 13 Zoom meeting with superintendents.

“I’ve been out and all around Oklahoma and done meetings with every superintendent in the state on a, on the Zoom call,” Walters said.

According to a superintendent survey from StateImpact, by time of publication, nearly half of the 174 superintendent respondents were not on the Zoom call. 91% said they’ve never met with the superintendent personally or in a small group.

Mid-Del Superintendent Rick Cobb also fired back on Twitter, saying the meeting lasted 15 minutes and Walters took no questions. StateImpact verified this with several other district superintendents.

“He has also not answered requests to meet with OKC metro superintendents. We ask monthly,” Cobb wrote.

Walters also claimed because he ended the agency’s remote work policy -

“Not a week goes by that I don’t get a text from an administrator who thanks me for that,” Walters said.

Federal grants

Another key issue brought up in the hearing was whether the superintendent has applied for major federal grants. Walters answered by inviting lawmakers to come to the agency to “go over our decision making process” on which grants he chooses to apply for. He said he hasn’t “missed a single deadline” for grant applications, but it was unclear which grants were included.

Walters also mentioned other grants his office had identified that hadn’t been applied for in the past, and his agency was encouraging districts to apply for them.

Rep. Martinez requested in writing what the superintendent’s criteria for choosing grants was, which grants have been applied for, which grants he will apply for, and which grants he would not be applying for.

“Just to make it very black and white, by May 8th, one week from today, in my inbox, or someone could deliver it to me in a hard copy,” Martinez said. “I’ll be looking forward to seeing that within the next week.”

Deadlined requests

The following requests were made of Superintendent Walters to return:

By May 8, 2023

  • Rep. Ryan Martinez & Speaker of the House Charles McCall: a list of grants applied for, to be applied for, and will not be applied for, and criteria as to how those decisions were made
  • Rep. Dick Lowe (R-Amber): a list of districts receiving Redbud grants for facility and infrastructure improvements, which he said were due Feb. 1 from the superintendent
  • Rep. Monroe Nichols: data on the correlation between “indoctrination” and lowered academic outcomes in students
  • Rep. Scott Fetgatter: a meeting with his district’s superintendents

By May 15, 2023

  • Rep. Anthony Moore (R-Clinton): a list of emails received by Walters as commissioner of the Office of Education Quality and Accountability during his Secretary of Education tenure. Moore said the email address on the website was for the school choice organization Walters was formerly the executive director of — Every Kid Counts Oklahoma (archived webpage available here). The page, which was updated May 2, no longer lists Walters.
  • Rep. Trish Ranson (D-Stillwater): documentation verifying Walters has approval from the federal government that he can use federal IDEA money — generally used to support students with disabilities — to fund his teacher sign-on bonus incentive program.
Beth reports on education topics for StateImpact Oklahoma.
StateImpact Oklahoma reports on education, health, environment, and the intersection of government and everyday Oklahomans. It's a reporting project and collaboration of KGOU, KOSU, KWGS and KCCU, with broadcasts heard on NPR Member stations.
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