In Tuesday’s televised Republican runoff debate for state superintendent of public instruction, Secretary of Education Ryan Walters and Shawnee Public Schools Superintendent April Grace sparred only a few times, but they crafted different messages for voters regarding a “culture war,” school funding and school choice.
Throughout the debate, hosted by KOKH Fox 25, Walters continually decried a “culture war” he said the “far-left” is waging in schools, but Grace refused to engage with him on the topic, focusing instead on policy matters.
The two candidates are vying for the Republican nomination to face Democrat Jena Nelson in the November general election for the state superintendent position that leads the Department of Education and chairs the State Board of Education. In June, Walters and Grace advanced from a four-way primary, receiving 41.46 percent and 30.63 percent of the vote, respectively.
‘I don’t know how you’re defining woke’
The candidates’ responses to the night’s first question — which asked them to identify the biggest issue facing public education in Oklahoma — made their differing messages immediately clear.
“The biggest issue facing our education system today is left-wing indoctrination in our schools,” Walters said, echoing social media comments he has made for months. “What we’ve seen is the far left push issues like critical race theory, transgenderism and an anti-American-type curriculum into our schools that has to be rejected.”
Grace argued that Oklahoma’s education issues are similar to national problems, including a teacher shortage and “educational outcomes.”
“It’s time that we really get serious about focusing on the teacher shortage and, again, educational outcomes for our state,” she said. “We’ve got to do a better job of making sure that early literacy is a big foundation for our kids.”
Walters received a chance to elaborate on the “indoctrination” he fears, as the next questions asked candidates about HB 1775 and offensive books in libraries.
Walters said district superintendents are playing “woke olympics” and that current State Superintendent Joy Hofmeister should be holding school districts accountable with laws such as the one passed in HB 1775, which banned the teaching of certain concepts about race and gender in Oklahoma public schools.
“What we’ve also seen is a liberal State Superintendent Joy Hofmeister who is unwilling to enforce the law as it should be,” Walters said. “Any school that teaches critical race theory, that tells students that they are something because of the color of their skin — thus creating a victim class of students — should lose their accreditation. The superintendents that allow this on their watch should not continue to be superintendents.”
Grace did not address the contents of HB 1775, but she said districts need clear guidelines on how to handle its enforcement.
“Well, first of all, I think we need really clear communication around what’s acceptable and what’s not around this,” Grace said. “And then, after that, I think what we’ve seen is we’re going to see things like deficiencies on their accreditation so that they have an opportunity to get these things corrected.”
When moderators asked the candidates if they thought cultural issues were more important than “some of the more traditional educational issues like school funding [and the] teacher shortage,” Grace and Walters found some disagreement.
“Let me be really clear on that — the left has declared a cultural war on our kids,” Walters replied.
Grace refused to acknowledge any specific “cultural” issues and instead focused on school funding.
“I think we definitely need to be concerned and make sure that in our classrooms we’re focused on academics and that we’re doing our best to keep social issues out of the context of that academic learning environment,” Grace said. “But in Oklahoma, we rank between 45th and 47th in school funding. (…) If we really want to move Oklahoma education forward, teachers have to have resources and support.”
Only at the end of the debate did Grace use one of the buzzwords Walters had repeated throughout his arguments. When Walters referenced Tulsa Public Schools’ recent accreditation downgrade owing to a HB 1775 complaint, he asked Grace if she thought TPS had “gone woke.”
“You know, Ryan, I don’t know how you’re defining ‘woke’ or what that is,” Grace replied. “What I know is that they do a lot of great things also in Tulsa Public Schools. What I would love to hear you talk about someday is some of the great things going on in any public school in our state, because simply that is just not what we typically hear.”
Teacher shortage, school funding choice
While Grace did not engage with Walters’ culture war claims, she did push back on his plans for attracting and retaining teachers, as well as his school choice arguments. Walters said funding issues faced by districts have been caused by administrators and not the state.
Walters said Oklahoma taxpayers have put “a record investment in public education,” but he said district administrations are growing without that money reaching the classroom.
“The other thing that we need to absolutely do with our funding formula is have it follow the educational choice of a parent,” he said.
Grace pushed back, taking a stand against “school choice” and the Oklahoma Empowerment Act, a proposed voucher program that failed to advance from the State Senate earlier this year.
“It sounds like that what Ryan would like to do if he’s state superintendent is divert public funds away from our local community public schools,” Grace said. “Right now in Oklahoma, the money does follow the student.”
Walters supported the controversial Oklahoma Empowerment Act along with Gov. Kevin Stitt and the bill’s author, Senate President Pro Tempore Greg Treat (R-OKC). The bill proposed allowing parents to take money the state otherwise would have spent on their child’s public school education and instead put it toward private school tuition or homeschooling resources.
Addressing a question about the teacher shortage and teacher retention, Walters said the issue stems from administrators who are not “empowering” current teachers to be successful. He touted a vague call Stitt has made for reforms aimed at paying some teachers six-figure salaries.
Grace criticized the plan for a lack of detail and said state leaders have chosen to put money in savings over helping to grow teachers’ salaries.
“By the way, this six-figure plan — there’s no funding for it right now,” Grace said.
Grace also argued that addressing the teacher shortage would require recruiting teachers by offering incentives, not attacking them.
“Certainly, when we put out on Twitter different attacks on teachers, that’s probably not going to also get people into the profession,” Grace said, referencing Walters’ Twitter statements and videos recorded mostly in his car.
Keeping with his left-wing indoctrination theme, Walters said teachers did not want administrators to “force critical race theory or transgender ideology in their classrooms.”
Republican voters will decide between Walters and Grace on Tuesday, Aug. 23.