state superintendent
Jena Nelson and Ryan Walters are running to be Oklahoma's next state superintendent of public instruction. (NonDoc)

BARTLESVILLE — Dozens of Republicans turned out for a Washington County GOP meeting last week, including a woman dressed as the Statue of Liberty who danced on the sidewalk to Christian music and held a sign for state superintendent of public instruction candidate Ryan Walters.

Walters, who currently serves as Gov. Kevin Stitt’s secretary of education, was one of a number of conservatives who spoke at the meeting, where he spent 20 minutes discussing his platform and taking questions from the crowd.

In response to a question about making sure graduates can pass a basic civics test, Walters brought up a U.S. history curriculum provided free to schools across the country by Hillsdale College, a private, conservative liberal arts school in Michigan that promotes limited government and has established a national network of charter schools. Hillsdale’s president has drawn backlash for saying teachers “are trained in the dumbest parts of the dumbest colleges in the country.”

Debate tonight

When: 5 p.m.
Watch: Fox 25
Who: Ryan Walters, Jena Nelson

“I’ve been talking to Hillsdale College on this,” Walters said to cheers from the audience. “They’re great, they’re great. And (we should) have every U.S. history teacher in the state go through that training so they know the basics, so that our kids will have a teacher who is learned on U.S. history, on the Constitution, on those fundamental principles.”

Walters went on to describe those fundamental principles as “Judeo-Christian values.”

In a press release, Walters’ Democratic opponent Jena Nelson denounced his plan as one which would “institute mandatory patriotic education training provided by a private religious school for public school teachers.”

The exchange at the Bartlesville event and Nelson’s response to it echo a constant refrain that has run through this election cycle, with Walters emphasizing conservative talking points and his opponents denouncing them.

The pattern began during a contentious Republican primary, in which much of the educator community rallied around Walters’ runoff opponent April Grace, though Walters ultimately won the nomination, capturing 53.4 percent of the vote.

Nelson, who did not have an opponent in the Democratic primary, touts her rural background growing up in Broken Bow and has cast herself as a defender of public education, particularly in rural areas.

Polls have shown a tight race, with Walters and Nelson trading the lead in recent months.

Walters and Nelson are set to have their only debate tonight on KOKH Fox 25 at 5 p.m.

‘The only job that ever loved me back’

state superintendent
Ryan Walters addresses Washington County Republicans at a campaign event in Bartlesville, Oklahoma, on Monday, Oct. 17, 2022. (Bennett Brinkman)

Walters, a former history teacher who left his position at McAlester High School for a spot in Stitt’s cabinet in 2020, has made cries against “left-wing indoctrination” a centerpiece of his campaign, arguing at events and in videos recorded in his car that Democrats are trying to teach students to “hate America.”

Nelson has been a small-business owner and educator for 17 years and currently teaches at Classen School of Advanced Studies, although she is taking a leave of absence to campaign. She was the 2020 Oklahoma Teacher of the Year.

In an interview with NonDoc, Nelson described teaching as “the only job that ever loved me back.”

She has said she is running in part to “protect public education” because it “saves lives.”

“I believe that public education should be defended, not defunded,” Nelson said at a recent forum hosted by the Oklahoma Rural Schools Coalition. “And I believe that all of us working together can move it in a more forward direction.”

Walters chose not to attend the coalition’s forum. In an interview following the Bartlesville event two days later, Walters repeated an argument he has made throughout his campaign.

“What we’ve seen is far-leftism enter the classroom through (current State Superintendent) Joy Hofmeister and through the Democratic Party,” he said. “And what we’ve got to do is we’ve got to go back to championing every kid as an individual. We’ve got to reject that (left-wing ideology) in the classroom, set high expectations for our kids, get ideology out of the classroom.”

Walters has constantly decried Hofmeister on the campaign trail. Hofmeister, who is running for governor as a Democrat, won two elections for superintendent as a Republican in 2014 and 2018.

At his campaign event, Walters began his remarks by decrying “the myth of moderate Democrats,” though his comments were mainly aimed not at his opponent but at Hofmeister.

When asked about his opponent, Walters grouped Nelson alongside other Democrats with whom he has disagreed.

“I believe in Oklahoma values — I believe in parents,” Walters said. “My opponent instead believed in school shutdowns — she wanted schools to say shut down longer. She doesn’t believe parents should be as involved. She’s advocated against the bill that would ban critical race theory, so she supported critical race theory and radical ideology in the classroom.”

Walters was referencing HB 1775, which created a law that bans the teaching of certain concepts about race and gender and which has led to accreditation downgrades in two school districts. The law does not mention critical race theory, an academic framework taught in some colleges and law schools, but Walters and other conservative lawmakers have touted it as a ban on the concept.

Different takes on ‘Oklahoma values’

state superintendent
A Ryan Walters supporter holds a sign outside of a campaign event in Bartlesville, OK, on Monday, Oct. 17, 2022. (Bennett Brinkman)

Nelson, for her part, has not discussed COVID-19 policies extensively and has said that teachers cannot be indoctrinators because they are “too broke to be woke.” She argued that Walters represents a direct threat to public education.

She has clashed with the secretary on his support of a proposed program that would set state money aside for parents to spend on homeschool or private school options, which some have characterized as a school voucher effort.

Nelson said Walters’ support of vouchers and his rhetoric on public education is a dangerous combination, especially in rural areas where public schools cannot afford to lose money.

“If we institute these voucher programs, we are going to close down communities,” Nelson said.

state superintendent
Jena Nelson holds up a sign at the Oklahoma State University Homecoming parade on Saturday, Oct. 22, 2022. (Facebook)

Nelson said that while she does not like to “talk ugly about anybody,” she believes education is “under attack” and that Walters has contributed to this trend.

“Leadership has a great effect on the morale of those in your profession,” Nelson said. “When you have the secretary of education constantly name calling, it takes a big effect, and it reduces credibility in our communities with many people.”

Attacks from Walters and others have exacerbated the state’s teacher shortage, Nelson said.

Walters has come under fire during the campaign for seeming to threaten both teachers and federal funding for schools. In videos posted to Twitter from separate campaign events, Walters argued for holding teachers accountable by taking away teaching certificates and for “phasing away” the use of federal funds in schools.

Walters later clarified that he wants to make sure all federal dollars for education meet “Oklahoma values,” but he said “nothing is off the table.” Currently, federal funds make up a significant portion of the Oklahoma education budget and support programs like school feeding initiatives, special education and funding equalization in low-income areas.

At the ORSC forum, Nelson attacked Walters for his comments about federal funding and about teachers.

“We need to have a state superintendent who’s going to elevate and celebrate the profession and not tear it down and constantly terrorize the educators of this state,” Nelson said.