Oklahoma’s 2020 Teacher of the Year, Jena Nelson, officially announced her candidacy for state superintendent of public instruction Thursday, becoming the only Democrat seeking the statewide post so far.
“I want to be our superintendent to ensure students look forward to learning, teachers look forward to teaching and parents can trust these professionals to provide the best possible education for their children,” Nelson said in a statement announcing her candidacy. “It’s time for a revolution of classroom morale and my 16 years in public education have prepared me to step up and inspire those responsible for educating our kids to bring their best.”
Nelson has taught at Deer Creek Public Schools for the past five years and has spent 16 years in public education teaching subjects such as English and theater. She currently serves as the student support coordinator and teaches academic enhancement at Deer Creek Middle School.
Prior to her time at Deer Creek, Nelson taught at Edmond Public Schools, Putnam City Public Schools and in East Baton Rouge Louisiana. She was named Deer Creek Middle School and Deer Creek District Teacher of the Year in 2019 before receiving the state-wide honor of Oklahoma Teacher of the Year in 2020.
Nelson’s husband, Karl, is a professor and director of choral studies at the University of Central Oklahoma. The Nelsons have a 17-year-old son and a 12-year-old daughter.
In her statement, Nelson said she will bring a teacher’s voice to the State Department of Education.
“My promise to my kids and my promise to all Oklahomans is that I will do everything in my power to keep Oklahoma’s public dollars in its public schools,” Nelson said. “Our kids are not for sale.”
The state superintendent of public instruction is elected every four years and serves as the chairperson of the State Board of Education and as a member of the Commissioners of the Land Office board. Current State Superintendent Joy Hofmeister is unable to seek reelection owing to term limits. She switched her party affiliation from Republican to Democrat in October and announced a 2022 campaign for governor.
“To say that I didn’t have a great home life would be an understatement. Growing up in extremely humble circumstances, I wanted a place to feel safe and cared for outside of my trauma filled home and I found that place at school,” Nelson said. “To be the best it can be, Oklahoma needs to focus on humanizing teaching, recognizing educators as professionals and integrating mental health awareness in the classroom.”
Oklahoma’s 2022 statewide primary election is set for Tuesday, June 28. The general election is slated for Tuesday, Nov. 8.
Four candidates vie for state superintendent
Jena Nelson joins three other candidates who have thrown their hats into the ring for the state superintendent election. All three are Republicans: State Secretary of Education Ryan Walters, Shawnee Public Schools Superintendent April Grace and Peggs Public Schools Superintendent John Cox.
Cox has run campaigns for the position twice before as a Democrat, but the GOP primary appears to be a wide open race three months before Election Day.
An Amber Integrated poll of 455 likely Republican voters conducted between March 24 and March 27 found 77 percent of respondents undecided in the GOP primary. Cox received support from 11 percent of respondents, while Walters received 7 percent support and Grace received 6 percent.
Last week, The Frontier published an article saying Walters failed to report campaign expenditures in his quarterly finance reports, a violation of state ethics laws.
Grace has also faced criticism during her campaign after Shawnee assistant athletic director Ronald Arthur was accused of sexual misconduct with a 17-year-old. Arthur now faces three felony charges: first-degree rape, forcible sodomy and soliciting sexual contact with a minor by use of technology.
Arthur was arrested in Pottawatomie County in August after a former student said he messaged him on a dating app, which led to a sexual encounter. The student said the two had a separate sexual encounter in May, when the former student was 17 years old.
The affidavit of probable cause states that eight admonishments were found in Arthur’s employment file at Shawnee Public Schools for making vulgar and sexual comments to male students and vulgar comments about female students, allegations of having inappropriately touched a male’s buttocks, sending inappropriate text messages to students and having contact with students alone, prohibited by previous reinstatements.
Arthur’s preliminary hearing has been set for April 21 in Pottawatomie County District Court.