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Lawmaker accuses State Department of Education of immaturity, lack of transparency for refusing to release information

State Superintendent Ryan Walters answers questions from reporters after the Nov. 30 State Board of Education meeting.
Beth Wallis
/
StateImpact Oklahoma
State Superintendent Ryan Walters answers questions from reporters after the Nov. 30 State Board of Education meeting.

Rep. Mark McBride (R-Moore) claimed in a press release Friday numerous requests for information from state legislators have been ignored by the Oklahoma Department of Education.

In response to a third inquiry about alleged teacher recruitment numbers, a Metrics Software update and emails sent to State Superintendent Ryan Walters’ Every Kid Counts email, McBride said a note was slipped under his office door by an unidentified person. It was from Walters’ Senior Advisor, Matt Langston, and said, “Fool me once, shame on you. Fool me twice, shame on me.”

Every Kid Counts is the nonprofit organization Walters was the executive director of until February. It is funded largely by national school privatization efforts, according to an investigation from nonprofit media outlets Oklahoma Watch and The Frontier.

It’s also the target of an ongoing FBI investigation for allegedly misspending nearly $2 million in pandemic-era federal education funding, for which Walters granted “blanket approval,” according to another investigation from Oklahoma Watch and The Frontier. Instead of solely paying for educational expenses, the investigation found federal funds were used to purchase things like gaming consoles and Christmas trees.

McBride, who chairs the House Appropriations and Budget Subcommittee for Education, said in the release Langston’s response was “childish wordplay,” that followed a pattern of the Walters administration responding with “standoffishness, immaturity and a total lack of transparency and accountability” to legislators’ requests.

“The Legislature cannot tell if anything we are hearing from OSDE about where and how dollars are being spent is true, because Superintendent Walters and Sr. Advisor Langston refuse to answer the most basic inquires,” McBride said in the release. “The only logical conclusions that can be drawn from their lack of cooperation are that they are either lying about where the money is going, or they are hiding something.”

Oklahoma Rep. Mark McBride (R-Moore)
Provided
/
Oklahoma House of Representatives
Oklahoma Rep. Mark McBride (R-Moore)

In the release, McBride reminded Walters’ administration the Legislature, not the State Department of Education, is in charge of appropriating and overseeing state tax dollars.

“This responsibility comes with a duty to make sure that the appropriated dollars are being spent properly by the agencies and departments under the Legislature’s purview,” McBride said in the release.

Langston responded in a press release Friday, saying “no Oklahoman can take [McBride] seriously.”

“I’ve never seen a more whiney [sic] Democrat in my life,” the statement reads. “McBride continues to cry for attention while promoting failed policies, backing woke indoctrination and promoting porn in schools while working hand in hand with the Democrats and the liberal media. He’s made every union leader and liberal extremist proud.”

Walters’ rocky history with the state legislature

McBride is no stranger to conflict with Walters — the two butted heads frequently during the last legislative session and over the recent resignation of a state department employee who oversaw federal grant compliance.

Former program manager Pamela Smith-Gordon was one of dozens of employees who resigned or were fired by Walters’ administration. She said in an open letter Walters’ mismanagement of the organization plagued her ability to do her job, referencing delayed approvals, denied meeting requests and no access to necessary digital platforms for grant reporting.

McBride fought against administrative rules pushed by Walters that would have banned “obscene” materials from school libraries and allowed parents to review and object to sex education materials. It also would have required school employees to notify parents of information about their child, such as preferred pronoun usage and gender identity. If schools violated the rules, their accreditation would have been downgraded.

“I want to put this gentleman [Walters] in a box,” McBride said to the legislature at the time. “I want to focus on public education instead of his crazy destruction of public education.”

Ultimately, Oklahoma Attorney General Gentner Drummond issued a formal, binding opinion that the State Board of Education cannot make rules without direction from state lawmakers, effectively striking down Walters’ changes.

McBride said in the release over the course of two years, he and other legislators have tried numerous ways to work with the department’s leadership, to no avail.

“It is my sincere hope that [the Walters’ administration] will begin to work with the Legislature to make sure we are all doing right by the children and families of Oklahoma,” McBride said. “At the end of the day, this needs to be about the kids, not ego.”

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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