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From left to right, John Cox, Ryan Walters, April Grace and Bill Crozier participate in a debate for the Republican nomination in the state superintendent of public instruction race Wednesday, June 22, 2022. (Michael Duncan)

Oklahoma Secretary of Education Ryan Walters raised his hand as the lone supporter of the Oklahoma Empowerment Act during Wednesday evening’s debate among the four GOP primary candidates for State Superintendent of Public Instruction.

The candidates — Peggs Public Schools Superintendent John Cox, Union City resident William Crozier, Shawnee Public Schools Superintendent April Grace and Walters — faced an array of questions covering the teacher shortage, transgender student policies and individualized inquires about their records during the the evening’s debate, which was hosted by NonDoc in partnership with News 9 at the Renaissance Waterford Hotel Ballroom in Oklahoma City.

The first question asked by moderators provided a deceptively simple start to the evening for candidates: Raise your hand if you were ever suspended, received detention or got a demerit, and what did your educator do to teach you a lesson?

Walters answered immediately, telling the story of how he refused to do a fourth-grade book report that resulted in his teacher helping him find a love of reading. Crozier discussed watching a fight amongst fellow students that resulted in corporal punishment. Grace and Cox, however, said they could not recall a time they were anything but star pupils.

“In high school, basically, just didn’t get in trouble because I was more of a pleaser and I tried to do the things right,” Cox said. “I was the senior class teacher’s pet. I was the valedictorian, the vice president of student council, the senior class president. I was that guy.”

From there, the candidates sparred briefly and offered only a few moments of significant disagreement, underscoring how close the race appears to be.

In early June, the campaign and advocacy firm Amber Integrated conducted surveys polled 400 likely GOP primary voters and pegged the race as a “dead heat.” While 54 percent of those surveyed were undecided, 17 percent said they supported Cox, 14 percent said they supported Walters and 13 percent said they favored Grace. The difference among the candidates fell within the poll’s margin of error.

If no Republican candidate receives more than 50 percent of the June 28 primary vote, a runoff election will occur Aug. 23. The GOP nominee will go on to face Democrat Jena Nelson, a Deer Creek Middle School educator who was named Oklahoma’s 2020 Teacher of the Year.

You can watch the full debate here.

‘The money needs to stay in public ed’

A point of contention within the Oklahoma Legislature this year also provided contention on the debate stage. Also known as the Oklahoma Empowerment Act, SB 1647 would have provided parents below a certain income limit access to an “empowerment account” containing the amount of money the state would pay for their student’s public education, which parents would be able to use for things like private school tuition or other educational expenses. The bill failed on the Senate floor on a 22-24 vote in March.

Asked if they would support such a measure next year were they elected as state superintendent of public instruction, only Walters raised his hand.

“I advocated for it this past year,” said Walters, who serves as Gov. Kevin Stitt’s secretary of education. “I will always advocate for measures that help students, empowering parents further in their kids’ education and providing more freedom for families with education options, is a good thing,” Walters said. “I believe no one knows best for a kid than their mom and their dad, and I believe they know exponentially better than a government bureaucrat.”

Cox took a dig at Walters’ stance on empowerment accounts — also known as private school vouchers — which resulted in a brief shouting match between the two candidates. Cox said he supports school choice but believes public money should stay in public schools, and he referenced Walters’ private sector job running the nonprofit advocacy organization Every Kid Counts.

“If I was making a six-figure salary to promote vouchers, I would not veer from that. I would not go away from that, and I would stay on that topic or I would lose my job,” Cox said. “I’m running for state superintendent of public instruction. The money needs to stay in public ed.”

Walters returned fire, saying he was disappointed in Cox for “parroting the talking points of the Democratic Party,” noting that Cox had been a member of the Democratic Party for years.

Later in the debate, Walters also criticized another Republican-turned Democrat: term-limited State Superintendent Joy Hofmesiter, who is currently running for governor as a Democrat. Walters called her a “far left-wing Democrat Superintendent who has pushed low performance” in schools and an “abysmal superintendent.”

John Cox speaks and Ryan Walters listens during a Republican state superintendent of public instruction primary debate Wednesday, June 22, 2022. (Michael Duncan)

‘Nothing more important in our schools than student safety’

Walters was also asked about his involvement in distributing $8.9 million in Governor’s Emergency Education Relief Funding that came from Congress during the pandemic and was distributed through a program called the “Digital Wallet.” Concerns have been raised about oversight of the funding after The Frontier and Oklahoma Watch reported that some families used the money distributed through the vendor “Class Wallet” for what could be considered non-education related expenses.

Walters said the contract related to the GEER funding distribution was already in place when he took office in September 2020. However, a press release from the governor’s office upon Walters’ appointment said, “Every Kid Counts Oklahoma led the Bridge the Gap Digital Wallet initiative.” (The Frontier is working to produce a fact check of the evening’s debate.)

Grace, who has served as superintendent of Shawnee Public Schools since 2016, was asked for clarity regarding the continued employment of former assistant athletic director Ronald Arthur. Arthur was arrested in August and had his educator certificate suspended by the State Board of Education the same month for alleged sexual activity with a recently graduated student.

According to the affidavit of probable case, upon further investigation with search warrants, several admonishments were found in Arthur’s employment file between 2007 and 2020.

“Let me make it really clear, there’s nothing more important in our schools than student safety,” Grace said. “We must continue to be very deliberate about making sure certifications are suspended and revoked when these kinds of things happen.”

Grace said she couldn’t discuss much regarding the situation since a charge is pending against Arthur, and she referred to a press release on the district’s website. However, she also said matters in the case have been “misconstrued.” Asked who has misconstrued things, she offered more clarity.

“I can’t get into the specifics because of particular legal perimeters, but I can tell you a particular deputy actually didn’t know some of the aspects of the personnel file and misconstrued how many events and those sorts of things,” Grace said.

She said as state superintendent, it would be important to sit down with the legislators and legal counsel to see if there are ways to be more transparent about employee files in these types of situations.

Cox was questioned about switching his party affiliation from Democrat to Republican since his previous campaigns for state superintendent in 2014 and 2018.

“At 18 years old, I was a Republican. My family was in rural Delaware County. There was probably a handful of several Republicans. To vote, you actually had to be a Democrat to be part of the process,” Cox said. “When I ran, I didn’t know about party. I just knew there was problem, so I was going to jump both feet in to take care of our kids.”

Cox explained that the “old Democrats in the country are Republicans now.”

“I didn’t know I was going to run (this year) until I saw who my opponents were going to be, and I did not want them to be the state superintendent, and I knew I had to protect kids,” Cox said.

April Grace speaks during a Republican state superintendent of public instruction primary debate Wednesday, June 22, 2022. (Michael Duncan)

‘Oklahoma schools are not going to go woke’

Walters was also asked about his social media presence and the cell phone videos from his car he posts in which he has criticized “woke policies.” The videos have discussed transgender students playing sports and Walters’ opposition to school policies allowing transgender students to use the bathroom they feel matches their gender identity. Some of Walters’ former students have questioned whether his personality has changed as a political candidate.

“This is one of the unfortunate results of a far left-wing mob that’s forcing this into our schools,” Walters said. “Until 10 years ago, this wasn’t an issue. Schools have been dealing with students who have different issues for years and years. But what we’ve allowed is a far left-wing group that is out of line with Oklahoma values to dictate policies. The reality is, Oklahoma schools are not going to go woke.”

Asked to clarify his position, Walters said he does approve of transgender students having access to single-seat bathrooms or other individual accommodations.

Crozier, who provided levity throughout the evening and once had to dig through a Braum’s grocery bag filled with his personal affairs to silence what appeared to be a Nokia flip phone, pointed out the existence of intersex individuals.

Throughout the debate, Walters emphasized his belief that parents should be in the “driver’s seat” of their children’s education.

“We’ve got families and parents all across the state that are getting engaged in our schools and our education systems. We’re seeing record attendance at school board meetings,” Walters said. “What I see moving forward is we’ve got to find ways to better engage those families.”

If elected, Grace said she has her eye on restructuring the State Department of Education in order to provide better service for rural school districts.

“One of the things I’d like to consider doing is some regional service centers across the state, in the four regions in the state, in more close proximity to our rural districts,” Grace said.

William Crozier listens during a Republican state superintendent of public instruction primary debate Wednesday, June 22, 2022. (Michael Duncan)