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Why Tulsa public schools are under threats of takeover in Oklahoma

OKLAHOMA CITY — Oklahoma’s largest school district held on to its accreditation last week after a monthslong battle with the state superintendent.

State Superintendent Ryan Walters has blamed Tulsa Public Schools’ low academic performance on poor leadership and alleged financial mismanagement. He also cited “woke ideology,” using appropriate pronouns for students, and allegations of an infiltration of the Chinese Communist Party in classrooms as causes of the district’s ongoing woes.

Walters has appealed to the state school board to strip the district of its accreditation to allow for a state takeover. The district, which serves nearly 34,000 students, is in the third week of its new academic year.

“We have to have change in Tulsa,” Walters said in a video posted to social media last week. “It’s got to be dramatic change.”

Fearing such a takeover, Tulsa Public Schools Superintendent Deborah Gist, whom Walters often blamed for the district’s issues, resigned from her job Wednesday evening, the day before the state school board voted on the accreditation.

It’s part of a growing number of political conflicts over education playing out across the country. In Oklahoma, that has been driven by Walters, who has implemented rules that forbid school libraries from distributing books containing “sexualized content” and mandated that educators inform parents if their child inquires or wants to change their gender identity.

Walters made national headlines in July when he was asked at a public event how teaching the Tulsa Race Massacre would work under the state’s law banning the teaching of critical race theory in public schools.

“I would never tell a kid that because of your race, because of the color of your skin, or your gender or anything like that, you are less of a person or are inherently racist,” Walters said. “That doesn’t mean you don’t judge the actions of individuals. … But to say it was inherent in that because of their skin is where I say that is critical race theory. You’re saying that race defines a person.”

The morning of the accreditation vote, parents, students and Tulsa school staff showed their support for the district during rallies and walkouts. Some parents say Walters is motivated by conservative ideology and not the best interest of students, a charge the Republican has denied.

“I just feel like TPS is being attacked,” said Rebecca Zampino, a TPS parent. “They are being attacked because we have different values because we’re diverse.”

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A crowd of supporters for Tulsa Public Schools fills the overflow viewing area outside the monthly meeting for the Oklahoma State Board of Education. They listen as the district’s accreditation status is determined. Photo by Adam Kemp/PBS NewsHour

During a state school board meeting Thursday, the board unanimously voted to approve TPS’ status as “accredited with deficiencies,” an upgrade from its previous status of “accredited with warning.” It requires the district to develop specific action plans and report monthly on its progress.

Walters praised Gist’s resignation as a step in the right direction. But he offered several warnings that a dramatic turnaround was needed or further intervention was possible

“They have an opportunity here to drastically change directions,” Walters said. “But I want to be crystal clear, if that does not happen I leave every option on the table to force this district to serve these kids. I’m willing to do anything to turn these schools around.

“I advise Tulsa Public Schools and their leadership: Do not test me.”

Walters’ rhetoric has grown increasingly threatening in recent weeks. Several public commenters at the Thursday meeting referenced recent bomb threats made against Tulsa Public Schools and staff citing the need to end “woke ideology” in Tulsa’s classrooms.

Earlier in the week, Walters shared an edited video to his X, formerly known as Twitter, account from the far-right account Libs of Tiktok that showed a Tulsa librarian promising to continue to “push her woke agenda.” The video cut off the end of the librarian’s video where she clarified her agenda was to “[teach] kids to love books and be kind.”

Walters retweeted the video with the caption stating, “Woke ideology is real and I am here to stop it.”

By the next morning, Tulsa police responded to a local elementary school after bomb threats against the school were emailed to Tulsa media outlets. Police searched the campus with bomb-sniffing K-9s but found no threat.

State Rep. Mickey Dollens, a Democrat, called on the leaders of the House and Senate to begin the impeachment process after multiple threats. On Tuesday morning, Oklahoma House Democrats called for an investigation into Walters for his “reckless rhetoric.”

“As elected leaders, we are obligated to our constituents to hold the government accountable to the people of Oklahoma,” Senate Democratic Leader Kay Floyd said in a statement. “The safety of Oklahoma’s students and families depends on changes to the current situation.”

Noel Candelaria, the secretary-treasurer of National Education Association, said the union, which represents more than 3 million teachers and school support staff around the country, had been following the accreditation fight between Walters and TPS.

Candelaria said while they were pleased to see TPS keep their accreditation, he said the group is concerned Walters’ speech is causing more harm to the Tulsa community.

“There’s not a focus on real solutions,” Candelaria told the PBS NewsHour. “They just want to add more fuel to the fire. We need folks to be aware of the impact of what they say and what they do. Teachers, parents and students need there to be a focus on real solutions. He should end that rhetoric and talk with educators and parents to see what the real needs are.”

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Tulsa School Board President Stacey Woolley addresses the Oklahoma State Board of Education and superintendent Ryan Walters on behalf of Tulsa Public Schools during its fight to retain its accreditation status. Photo by Adam Kemp/PBS NewsHour

Tulsa School Board President Stacey Woolley addressed Walters directly during the meeting, asking him to tone down his language.

“I would make a plea to call off the attacks,” Woolley told Walters and the state board Thursday. “We can’t risk disruption. We can’t risk more threats. And we certainly can’t do anything that would cause harm to our students and our teachers.”

While Tulsa board members accept the responsibility to “accelerate change,” Woolley said, “the antics and rhetoric must stop.”

Not the first time Tulsa Public Schools has had accreditation threatened

The state Board of Education has been monitoring student performance in Tulsa for years.

TPS district officials have acknowledged that academic performance must improve but say that their problems are shared with almost every district in the state. District officials have asked the Oklahoma State Department of Education for help with student needs, specifically with reading and literacy outcomes, as well as achieving hands-on post-secondary learning opportunities for students.

As the largest school district in the state, Tulsa school officials say TPS is also one of the most diverse, with 77 schools collectively made up of 38.1 percent Hispanic, 22.4 percent Black, 21.8 percent White, 9.7 percent multiple, five percent American Indian/Alaska Native and 3.1 percent Asian/Pacific Islander, according to the state’s last official count in 2022.

Officials say more than 75 percent of its students classify as “economically disadvantaged” but point out the number of failing schools in the district is decreasing.

In July 2022, the Oklahoma State Board of Education voted to demote TPS’ accreditation, along with another school district, to penalize the districts over reported violations of state law banning the teaching of some race and gender topics in the classroom.

Walter had threatened that he would explore every option for Tulsa Public Schools, including non-accreditation, which would essentially close the district, or put it on probation, a move the Oklahoma State Department of Education used last year to take over the Western Heights school district in southwest Oklahoma City. In that situation, Western Heights saw a massive loss of students and employees, financial mismanagement, retaliatory behavior toward staff and parents and some of the lowest academics in the state.

The state Board of Education placed Western Heights on probation in April 2021. Months later, the board voted to authorize full state intervention, taking control of the district for a year. Superintendent Mannix Barnes was subsequently suspended, a move upheld by Oklahoma County District Court after Barnes sued.

A similar battle is playing out in Houston where in May, the Texas Education Agency announced it would take over the Houston public school district, the state’s largest district and one of the largest in the country, and replace its elected school board and superintendent with a board of appointed managers.

Candelaria said Oklahoma seems to be unique in this circumstance as the issues Walters has raised with Tulsa Public Schools seems to be less about financial mismanagement or poor test scores, and more about what’s being taught in the classroom.

“It’s really limiting what educators can teach in the classroom,” Candelaria said. “We are seeing the politicians of these schools are aimed at dividing our communities, and we are not seeing them actually focus on giving the resources that are desperately needed.”

The board outlined three measures for TPS to follow to keep its current accreditation status as “accredited with deficiencies.”

  • A professional development plan to train teachers on the science of reading
  • An action plan for all schools designated with an “F” on state school report cards
  • Development and publication of new internal controls to prevent embezzlement

Walters promised the local Tulsa school board “a very short rope,” saying he would return and ask for additional authority from the state Board of Education if he does not see adequate progress made within a few months.

“I see this as giving this district the opportunity to succeed,” Walters said. “To be clear, if they don’t fix their problems, I will.”

What students and parents think

At Booker T. Washington High School in Tulsa, supporters lined the sidewalk holding signs that said, “We stand with Tulsa Public Schools” and “We Love Our Students,” and cheered as students walked out of the school building.

Student organizers addressed the crowd and told them now was the time to use their voices to stand for their school.

Paris Bedford, a junior at the school, said it’s “no coincidence” that Walters is going after the most racially diverse public school district in Oklahoma.

“This isn’t about protecting children. This is about controlling children and upping your career in the conservative community,” Bedford said.

Walters has denied these accusations, but despite Oklahoma City Public Schools facing similar challenges in performance, he has focused squarely on TPS.

Tulsa and Oklahoma City districts had enrollments of 33,871 and 33,245 students, respectively, as of the last published numbers in 2022. The number of students classified as “economically disadvantaged” as of that last count was 75.8 percent for Tulsa students and 91.4 percent for Oklahoma City students.

Standing with the overflow crowd outside the packed meeting room in the Oklahoma State Capitol complex, Mitch Ewalt watched the proceedings on a projection screen with TPS supporters, as well as others standing with “Thank you Ryan Walters” signs.

Ewalt said he grew up attending Tulsa Public Schools and has grown concerned with the interference coming from Walters and state Gov. Kevin Stitt, also a Republican. He believes they are playing political games with the futures of the children.

“This is shameful and is only going to hurt our students if they keep interfering,” Ewalt said. “To say that our teachers and educators are trying to indoctrinate students is just so wrong. They are trying their best every day despite the best efforts to undermine them from our top leaders in government.”

What’s next

As part of the accreditation vote Thursday, Tulsa Public School officials were asked to do monthly reports to the state Board of Education.

Woolley, the school board president, told the Tulsa World newspaper that she has not been given any actionable items or other information about those deliverables other than what was discussed during the meeting.

“There is significant conversation still needed so we are clear of what their expectations are and what the demands on our board will actually be,” she said.

Shortly after the meeting ended, Ryan Walters’ campaign sent out an email asking for donations to ensure there is a conservative in charge of “our education.”