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State Superintendent Ryan Walters proposes rules to ban DEI, educators who perform in drag from Oklahoma K-12 schools

State Superintendent Ryan Walters addresses media members after the December 2023 Board of Education meeting.
Beth Wallis
StateImpact Oklahoma
State Superintendent Ryan Walters addresses media members after the December 2023 Board of Education meeting.

On the heels of Gov. Kevin Stitt’s executive order banning certain diversity, equity and inclusion programs, State Superintendent Ryan Walters announced new administrative rules targeting DEI in K-12 schools at Thursday’s December Board of Education meeting.

In addition, Walters wants to amend the teacher code of conduct to ban educators who engage in certain activities like performing in drag. Though Walters did not mention him by name, the rule appears to be in response to the case of one Western Heights principal who performs in drag during non-work hours.

“The issue that we’ve seen in one district in particular, and that is the use of drag queens as administrators and being hired by a district. We are proposing a rule that would update the teacher code of conduct to include sexual activity in public targeted towards kids to be inappropriate for those that work with our youngest students,” Walters said. “I’ve heard from parents all over the state who are very concerned with the left, pushing sexuality on our kids, pushing transgender ideology.”

Walters also said he would be proposing new rules to “ensure that prayer and Bible verses and any kind of religious expression” are protected, alluding to activism from “out-of-state groups.” Recently, a controversy arose at Prague Elementary School for hosting daily prayers after Wisconsin-based Freedom From Religion Foundation sounded the alarm.

Despite a news release from his office saying “Walters bans DEI” and that he “eliminated ‘Drag Queen’ and other sexually provocative behaviors by teachers and administrators,” no official action was taken at the meeting regarding those issues.

To pass new administrative rules, it first must go through a 60-day public comment period, then it would be put to a vote by the Board of Education, and then the measures would need to pass the legislative process — though the governor can skirt that process with an executive order.

Walters said in the meeting his anti-DEI initiative is to combat a “culture of victimhood” in Oklahoma schools.

“Our kids, every single one, are created in God’s own image. He created us as individuals, not as members of groups like ‘oppressed’ and ‘oppressors,’” Walters said. “We all have God-given potential. And the role of education is to unlock that potential, not to destroy it at the altar of woke indoctrination.”

Walters elaborated the rule would apply to DEI positions, curriculum and programs.

Also on the agenda was the possible adoption of permanent rules that would prohibit students from changing their gender markers on prior school records. But after speaking to a new legal counsel for the board who had been on the job for a week, department legal counsel Bryan Cleveland agreed to push the vote back to January’s meeting to give her more time to review it.

Update on Tulsa Public Schools

Now-permanent Tulsa Public Schools superintendent Ebony Johnson gave another mandated presentation on the district’s progress toward three goals: elevate academic outcomes, train their educators in the science of reading, and get the majority of the district’s low-performing schools to earn higher marks on state report cards.

Tulsa Public Schools Superintendent Ebony Johnson delivers a progress presentation to the State Board of Education at the December 2023 meeting.
Beth Wallis
StateImpact Oklahoma
Tulsa Public Schools Superintendent Ebony Johnson delivers a progress presentation to the State Board of Education at the December 2023 meeting.

Johnson said the district’s first goal will see the percentage of students scoring “Basic” or above on state tests increase from 41% in May 2023 to 46% in May 2024. Johnson said that would mean around 700 more students moving to a higher performance band.

Alluding to disputed claims from the state department at the November meeting that TPS’ financial team had been avoiding meeting with the department, Johnson outlined the district’s cooperation.

“Before we begin to discuss [the district’s] three objectives, we want to affirm with the state board that Tulsa Public Schools staff have continued to work with OSDE staff at multiple levels,” Johnson said, pointing to a slide with recorded meeting dates. “You see the dates outlined there, you see where there has been ongoing communication. This is in addition to all of the previous dates that we didn’t have enough slide room to put those dates on slides.”

Despite the department alleging “excuses” last month from TPS’ financial team on scheduling meetings, Johnson called attention to biweekly finance team meetings.

“The goal is that we have alignment. The goal is that we have questions answered. The goal is that, you know, that we are being fully transparent, not only with our academic expectations, but also the finances of Tulsa Public Schools,” Johnson said. “As of today, we have not received any request from the OSDE School Improvement Team members… that we have not responded to and or communicated about a timeline of which that information would be provided.”

The presentation included a demographic breakdown of the district’s “Below Basic” students, which underscore what Johnson said were ways TPS could specifically target interventions based on individual student needs. Of the 6,200 elementary and middle school students at the lowest performance level, 92% are economically disadvantaged, 20% are on Individualized Education Plans, and 43% do not speak English as their first language.

Since the November Board of Education meeting, Johnson said the district has increased its Strategic Plan student outcome goals to directly align with the Oklahoma Department of Education’s literacy improvement goals. That plan is pending TPS Board approval. The district is also tracking its “Below Basic” students and planning targeted interventions for those students for next semester.

Johnson said the district was committed to getting 100% of its current elementary and secondary educators and school leaders to complete science of reading training. Since the November board meeting, Johnson said the district finalized plans for dedicated professional development days in the spring to hit their training goals by May 2024.

As for its final goal, Johnson pledged to get at least 12 of 18 schools designated “More Rigorous Intervention” to hit certain targets on the next state report card. Since the start of the school year, 4 of those 18 school sites have been removed from the MRI list.

Johnson also highlighted the district’s use of the AI science of reading program, Amira. She said TPS students averaging 30 minutes a week with Amira are significantly outpacing national growth rates for literacy. While there are still a few kinks to work out for the tool to be utilized smoothly in the classroom, Johnson said the district is working with the company to fix those issues.

Despite several previous board meetings ending in threats from Walters that all options were on the table in terms of disciplining TPS, Walters did not allude to pulling or downgrading the district’s accreditation status at the conclusion of Johnson’s presentation, which lasted about an hour and a half.

“I do appreciate it. That was a lengthy presentation, but I think it was — it provided us with a lot of clarity for a lot of the questions we had,” Walters said to Johnson. “So I do appreciate your patience with that, Superintendent.”

TPS will return for another presentation at the board’s January meeting.

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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