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Superintendent Ryan Walters announces mandate on Bibles in classrooms, but AG’s office says it sees no requirement

A stack of books, including three Bibles, sat on the table beside State Superintendent Ryan Walters at the May 2024 State Board of Education meeting.
Beth Wallis
/
StateImpact Oklahoma
A stack of books, including three Bibles, sat on the table beside State Superintendent Ryan Walters at the May 2024 State Board of Education meeting.

State Superintendent Ryan Walters said during opening comments of Thursday’s State Board of Education meeting that “every teacher, every classroom in the state will have a Bible in the classroom and will be teaching from the Bible in the classroom.”

But as further guidance was issued in a memo letter to Oklahoma schools and reporters asked questions after the meeting, the reach of the mandate appeared to whittle down. And according to the Oklahoma attorney general’s office, it does not read Walters’ mandate as requiring the Bible to be taught.

According to the memo obtained by StateImpact, “all Oklahoma schools are required to incorporate the Bible, which includes the Ten Commandments, as an instructional support into the curriculum across specified grade levels, e.g., grades 5 through 12.”

State Superintendent Ryan Walters announced a mandate to require the Bible in classrooms at the June 2024 State Board of Education meeting.
Beth Wallis
/
StateImpact Oklahoma
State Superintendent Ryan Walters announced a mandate to require the Bible in classrooms at the June 2024 State Board of Education meeting.

In the press gathering after the board meeting, Walters further clarified the mandate applied to “every classroom where the standards are applicable.” Asked to elaborate on which subject-specific academic standards that would mean, Walters answered it would be social studies and English language arts.

“So, the social studies standards are the most straightforward,” Walters said. “You also have some of our ELA standards too that talk about literature to be used. So that’s something else that we will be discussing in the future as well.”

Asked to weigh in on the mandate, the AG’s office said, “Oklahoma law already explicitly allows Bibles in the classroom and enables teachers to use them in instruction.” When sent Walters’ comments regarding “every teacher, every classroom” to have a Bible and teach from it, the office said it could not speak to what Walters said at the board meeting.

“But the memo requires it [the Bible] be ‘incorporated’ as an instructional support. That has been the case for several years now,” spokesperson Phil Bacharach said. “We don’t read the memo as requiring it be taught.”

The memo to schools says the State Department of Education “may supply teaching materials for the Bible, as permissible, to ensure uniformity in delivery,” and “further instructions for monitoring and reporting on this implementation for the 2024/35 school year will be forthcoming.”

Finally, it says adherence to the mandate is compulsory, and “immediate and strict compliance is expected.”

The Oklahoma Academic Standards for social studies list religion in several ways for students in fifth through seventh grades: analyzing the role of religion in colonial America; describing the cultural traits of practiced religions; and for societies in the Eastern hemisphere: evaluating the impact of the major religions, the significance of religion in contemporary societies and how religion can unify and divide people.

For junior high and high school students, the standards instruct to: compare cultural perspectives of American Indians and European Americans regarding religion; assess the spatial dimensions of culture as defined by religion and explain how religion impacts different regions in world human geography; evaluate the impact of geography and trade on the development of culture in Africa, Asia and Europe including religion; and describe the origins, major beliefs, spread and lasting impact of the world’s major religions — including Judaism, Hinduism, Buddhism, Christianity, Islam, Confucianism and Sikhism.

The Bible is not explicitly mentioned in social studies or English language arts standards.

Oklahoma statutes also expressly leave determining “instruction, curriculum, reading lists and instructional materials and textbooks” up to the exclusive purview of school districts.

Democratic lawmakers and former teachers Rep. Melissa Provenzano (D-Tulsa) and Rep. John Waldron (D-Tulsa) advised school districts in a Thursday afternoon news release to “carefully review and follow existing state law” regarding religious teaching.

“Religious instruction should begin with and remain in the rightful hands of parents and guardians,” Provenzano said in the release. “Today’s directive feels like an unprecedented attempt from the State Superintendent to distract from the reported investigations into financial mismanagement of tax dollars meant to support our schools.”

Rep. Jacob Rosecrants (D-Norman) is a former middle and high school history teacher, and he said in an interview with StateImpact he’s heard from hundreds of teachers who are concerned and confused.

Like Provenzano, he said he also thinks the move is a “diversion” attempt from recent news, including the Oklahoma Supreme Court’s decision against the St. Isidore of Seville Catholic Virtual Charter School — a cause Walters has championed.

“Part of me is very, very angry,” Rosecrants said. “The separation of church and state — it just seems to be ignored. I guess the other part of me thinks he’s just doing this just for attention… to focus our eyes away from the incompetence and the losses he’s taking.”

Rosecrants said in his classroom, he taught about the Bible and Christianity’s role in history, but alongside other religious texts. He said while the current academic standards provide for historical teaching about the Bible, he’s concerned this is the first step toward farther-reaching policy updates.

“The social studies standards are up this year, and the social studies standard teams have been picked. And from what I can tell, they’ve been pretty much handpicked by Walters. So, it could show up. This could be a thing.”

Though many Oklahoma schools start fall classes within the next two months, Walters indicated there was still significantly more guidance to come on implementation and compliance monitoring of the mandate.

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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