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What you need to know as Oklahoma’s state board of education weighs Tulsa Public Schools’ accreditation

Oklahoma State Superintendent Ryan Walters speaks to reporters on Monday, Aug. 7, 2023, at the Tulsa County Republican Party headquarters.
Max Bryan
/
KWGS News
Oklahoma State Superintendent Ryan Walters speaks to reporters on Monday, Aug. 7, 2023, at the Tulsa County Republican Party headquarters.

Next Thursday, the State Board of Education will consider changing the accreditation status of the state’s largest school district, Tulsa Public Schools. This comes after over a year of remarks from State Superintendent Ryan Walters targeting the district.

With Texas’ recent takeover of Houston ISD, and last year’s state takeover of Western Heights in Oklahoma City, Tulsans are wondering if their school could be next.

More than any other district, Walters has focused criticism on Tulsa. He cites low academic performance, inappropriate books in school libraries, financial mismanagement, claims of indoctrination and violations of religious liberty.

Last summer was the first time Walters successfully led an effort to lower TPS’ accreditation. It dropped to “accredited with warning” for allegedly violating a state law that bans teaching certain topics about race and sex. He began his term as state superintendent in January.

Since then, he led the charge to knock TPS’ accreditation down again. The department has said this accreditation review is due to the school submitting a late report and a high-profile embezzlement case. But recently, Walters has been building a broader case against the district.

Walters’ case against Tulsa Public Schools

This July, Walters held a religious liberty rally after TPS board member E’lena Ashley was called out by district officials for praying at a graduation.

“At the next board meeting we have next month, we will be looking at Tulsa Public Schools’ accreditation for all their violations, fiscal mismanagement in this district, and we are going to continue to make sure that religious liberties are protected in Tulsa Public Schools,” Walters told reporters after the rally.

Oklahoma State Superintendent Ryan Walters speaks to reporters alongside Tulsa Public Schools board member E’Lena Ashley following a religious liberty rally on Friday, July 21, 2023, on the TPS Service Center grounds.
Max Bryan
/
KWGS News
Oklahoma State Superintendent Ryan Walters speaks to reporters alongside Tulsa Public Schools board member E’Lena Ashley following a religious liberty rally on Friday, July 21, 2023, on the TPS Service Center grounds.

But that didn’t happen. While most other Oklahoma districts’ accreditation was reviewed at that meeting, Walters moved TPS’ accreditation decision to August to further discuss what he calls ongoing, significant, severe issues.

With Tulsa Public Schools’ current accreditation level at “accredited with warning,” the next step down would be “accredited with probation.” If the State Board of Education votes for this option, it still means the district will stay open.

But Walters may take it a step further. He told reporters “all options are on the table,” including removing TPS’ accreditation outright — despite a recommendation from the state department that the school’s accreditation be changed to “accredited with deficiencies.”

Gov. Kevin Stitt has since said in an interview with the Tulsa World “everything is going to be OK,” with regard to TPS’ accreditation status, and he believes the local school board should be the body to handle issues in the school.

In August, the State Department of Education released a video of news clips reporting on TPS’ shortcomings over the years. Several media outlets have requested their content used in the video be removed, due to the property being included without permission from the organizations.

While Walters hasn’t explicitly said he wants Tulsa Public Schools Superintendent Deborah Gist to resign, he indicated at an Aug. 7 press conference held at the Tulsa County Republican Party Headquarters he would like to see her leave.

“There should be a new superintendent of Tulsa Public Schools,” he said. “When you see this type of leadership and you see this type of performance, Tulsans deserve better. She’s been here seven years. That trajectory is not good. We don’t see any serious plans to improve that.”

Real issues at TPS

TPS does have issues that could lower its accreditation score.

For one, the district reported to authorities embezzlement in the hundreds of thousands of dollars by a former TPS Chief Learning Officer Devin Fletcher. Gist said during a July press conference the district took the investigation into the embezzlement case seriously and hasn’t tried to hide anything from authorities.

“I’m as outraged, or maybe even more than anyone about that having happened,” Gist said. “I have taken full responsibility for the fact that we have handled it. We found it, we reported it, we’ve addressed it. We have done it in every possible way.”

Tulsa Public Schools Superintendent Deborah Gist speaks to reporters at a news conference on Wednesday, July 26, 2023, at the TPS Service Center.
Max Bryan
/
KWGS News
Tulsa Public Schools Superintendent Deborah Gist speaks to reporters at a news conference on Wednesday, July 26, 2023, at the TPS Service Center.

TPS also has low English proficiency scores compared to the rest of the state. Oklahoma’s most recent school report card from 2021-2022 indicates the district has a rate of 12.9% of students meeting or exceeding grade level standards for English. The state average is 27.2%.

But while the state’s accreditation standards give general guidelines for literacy — for instance, that students shall “gain literacy at the elementary and secondary levels” and “develop skills in reading, writing, speaking, computing and critical thinking” — they don’t articulate a certain literacy level percentage that would constitute a violation.

Oklahoma City Public Schools, a district of a similar size and demographic makeup, has an English standards proficiency level of 11.7%.

Walters said in an interview with the Tulsa World he didn’t think the districts were similar enough to warrant the comparison. Oklahoma City, he said, has seen positive change in state report card scores. But while it is true Oklahoma City has taken several of its schools off of the “F” report card list, the same can also be said of Tulsa.

Gist responded to Walters’ claims at an Aug. 7 press conference, acknowledging work needs to be done, but targeting the school is not the answer.

“There’s no question that Tulsa Public Schools has a plan for improvement,” Gist said. “We’re working on that plan and we’re seeing results.”

Gist shot back at Walters for failing to provide a comprehensive plan on how exactly the district should improve.

“He has no plans. He has presented no plans,” Gist said. “He has not described or discussed any plans or efforts around supporting not just Tulsa Public Schools, but the state as a whole.”

The state department later released a document containing what it calls an “improvement plan,” but it doesn’t go into detail on how the department’s proposed objectives should be achieved. It calls on the district to “reorient finances to serve students,” “increase reading proficiency scores to the state average” and “get TPS schools [sic] off the F-list.”

The looming accreditation threat’s impact on Tulsa’s community

Walters’ threats have caused concern from officials throughout Tulsa. Four city councilors penned a letter to the state board, arguing that lowering TPS’ accreditation would negatively impact the city as a whole.

Tulsa Mayor G.T. Bynum also weighed in, saying he’s “greatly concerned” about the accreditation conversation surrounding TPS.

Walters and TPS leadership “both want Tulsa Public Schools to be better,” Bynum said. “What I’m trying to get a good grasp on is, where is the disagreement on how we make TPS better? And where is the common ground there?”

Members of the Tulsa community have voiced support for the district and its superintendent. TPS parent Ashley Daly — a regular public commenter at state school board meetings — became emotional during July’s state board meeting.

“I just can’t believe you won’t talk to us and help us. This is not how you treat parents,” Daly said, directing her comments at Walters and the board. “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.”

State representatives John Waldron and Monroe Nichols — both from Tulsa — held a press conference Wednesday defending the district and condemning Walters’ rhetoric. City councilor Lori Decter Wright voiced her concern for what a downgrade to “non-accredited” could mean for the community.

“It will affect the quality of your neighborhood. It will affect who you can employ. It will affect brain drain,” Decter Wright said. “Not just our teachers leaving, but also the young people who have been educated in the public schools here saying, ‘There’s not a place for me here in Oklahoma.’”

Tulsa City Councilor Lori Decter Wright speaks at a news conference about Tulsa Public Schools’ accreditation alongside state Rep. John Waldron, from left, TPS parent Ashley Daly, Booker T. Washington graduate Lance Brightmire, state Rep. and Tulsa mayoral candidate Monroe Nichols, TPS board member Jennettie Marshall and state Rep. Regina Goodwin on Wednesday, Aug. 16, 2023, at Central Library in downtown Tulsa.
Max Bryan
/
KWGS News
Tulsa City Councilor Lori Decter Wright speaks at a news conference about Tulsa Public Schools’ accreditation alongside state Rep. John Waldron, from left, TPS parent Ashley Daly, Booker T. Washington graduate Lance Brightmire, state Rep. and Tulsa mayoral candidate Monroe Nichols, TPS board member Jennettie Marshall and state Rep. Regina Goodwin on Wednesday, Aug. 16, 2023, at Central Library in downtown Tulsa.

Tulsa World reporter Lenzy Krehbiel-Burton said in an interview that now more than ever, district school board meetings are attended by the people affected the most – the students. She said the potential fallout of pulling TPS’ accreditation is weighing on the community.

“The fact that there are secondary students aware of this situation, and wondering, is heartbreaking,” Krehbiel-Burton said. “Just the uncertainty, more than anything. Which is the last thing you need, especially for kids going back into school, when a lot of them are already nervous enough – ‘Oh my god, am I going to get the classes I want? Am I gonna get to be with my friends?’ To have that thrown on top of it? No thanks.”

Oklahoma’s State Board of Education meets Thursday, Aug. 24 at 9:30 a.m. at the Oliver Hodge Education Building in Oklahoma City. Meetings are usually live streamed on the department’s Facebook page.

StateImpact Oklahoma is a partnership of Oklahoma’s public radio stations which relies on contributions from readers and listeners to fulfill its mission of public service to Oklahoma and beyond. Donate online.

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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