Ryan Walters
Ryan Walters speaks at his election night watch party after winning the GOP primary runoff for state superintendent on Tuesday, Aug. 23, 2022. (Michael Duncan)

After a contentious runoff in which candidates clashed about basic problems facing Oklahoma public schools, State Secretary of Education Ryan Walters won the Republican nomination for state superintendent of public instruction.

“Tonight is a great victory for our state,” Walters said in a statement sent to NonDoc. “Under [Gov. Kevin Stitt’s] leadership we will empower parents, teachers, and kids to choose what’s best in education. This is also a decisive victory for school choice. I’m grateful to every voter who supported me and I will deliver on my promise to get critical race theory out of our schools, end liberal indoctrination, and I will fight against Joe Biden’s values that will destroy our country.”

A former high school teacher who drew ridicule from public school advocates for his series of fervent social media videos recorded in his car, Walters received about 53 percent of the vote against Shawnee Public Schools Superintendent April Grace. Walters will now face Democrat Jena Nelson in the November general election.

All results posted by the Oklahoma State Election Board online are unofficial until they are certified by the board.

Walters also finished atop the four-way June 28 primary with 41.46 percent of the vote. Grace advanced to face him in the runoff with 30.63 percent. The two candidates beat John Cox and William Crozier.

‘Left-wing indoctrination in our schools’

Walters prevailing Tuesday night represents a victory for Gov. Kevin Stitt, who has joined Walters in advocating for education savings accounts, otherwise known as vouchers for private school tuition. Walters has repeatedly decried “left-wing indoctrination” and has used the word “woke” as a political weapon during his campaign.

“The biggest issue facing our education system today is left-wing indoctrination in our schools,” Walters said in an Aug. 9 debate hosted by KOKH Fox 25. “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.”

Stitt appointed Walters to the secretary of education position in September 2020. Prior to that, Walters taught history at McAlester High School. Currently, he also serves as the director of Every Kid Counts Oklahoma, an education advocacy organization.

While Walters had the support of conservative legislators such as Sen. Nathan Dahm (R-Broken Arrow), who unsuccessfully ran for the open U.S. Senate seat, Grace had broad support from Oklahoma educators.

According to a Twitter post from Grace, 85 current and former district superintendents across the state endorsed her bid for state superintendent. In the end, however, that was not enough to overcome Walters’ popularity among Republican voters and concerns about how Shawnee Public Schools responded to allegations of sexual misconduct by former teacher and coach Ron Arthur.

In addition to Dahm, Walters is also endorsed by U.S. Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas) and former Oklahoma Gov. Frank Keating, according to his website.

During her campaign, Grace pushed back against Walters’ school choice arguments, saying a voucher program would divert money from public education and that parents already had enough school choices.

In addition to vouchers, Walters also disagreed with Grace over the State Department of Education’s handling of HB 1775, which Stitt signed into law last year and that bans the teaching of certain concepts about race and gender.

While Grace generally declined to discuss the contents of the law and called for more communication around its rules, Walters was more than willing to use it to decry what he calls “indoctrination.”

“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,” Walters said in the same debate. “The superintendents that allow this on their watch should not continue to be superintendents.”

The text of HB 1775 does not mention the term critical race theory, an academic idea taught in some colleges and law schools, but Walters and Stitt have effectively referred to it as a ban on the concept.

As Walters heads to the general election, a lingering question surrounding his state service involves how Every Kid Counts handled Oklahoma’s share of Governor’s Emergency Education Relief Fund (GEER) money from the federal government. Earlier this month, state Rep. Logan Phillips (R-Mounds) announced a lawsuit against the state to try to get records surrounding how the state, and Walters in particular, monitored the hundreds of thousands of dollars that parents who received the funds reportedly misspent.

With his runoff win, Walters will now gear up to face Nelson, a 6th and 7th grade English teacher at Classen SAS Middle School in Oklahoma City and 2020 Oklahoma Teacher of the Year. Nelson says on her website that she got into the race to combat the teacher shortage. She also says she opposes school vouchers.