Ryan Walters school choice
Ryan Walters answers questions from a journalist after winning the GOP primary runoff for state superintendent on Tuesday, Aug. 23, 2022.(Michael Duncan)

(Update: Ryan Walters has resigned as director of Every Kid Counts Oklahoma, according to a report Sunday, Jan. 8, from The Frontier. The article below remains in its original form.)

As Ryan Walters prepares to be sworn into office Jan. 9 as Oklahoma’s new state superintendent of public instruction, he is already leading weekly school choice coalition meetings in his capacity as the director of an education reform organization, a job he says he may or may not continue after he takes office, which has raised conflict of interest questions.

Functionally, Walters is preparing to take over the State Department of Education, which requires hiring a slew of positions and making a number of administrative decisions on a daily basis. But questions remain about how Walters plans on transitioning from campaigning to governing. For instance, he has yet to announce a chief of staff.

“That’s still an internal [discussion] that we’re working on,” Walters said Dec. 14. “There’s not an announcement ready there. That has not been a position that’s been hired yet.”

Walters has offered some answers for how he plans to govern, saying he thinks the State Department of Education will look “a lot different” under his leadership compared to Joy Hofmeister’s tenure.

But on Twitter — where he spent much of the 2022 election cycle posting videos filmed from his car — Walters has continued to amplify the same culture-war rhetoric that he employed on the campaign trail. His recent tweets praise various politicians in Florida, comment on elections in Arizona, criticize Anthony Fauci, compare critical race theory to Marxism and call for it to be banned, although he repeatedly said on the campaign trail it already had been banned in the state.

Three days before Christmas, Walters tweeted a photo of his family with a Caucasian man dressed as Santa Claus and wrote, “No woke Santa this year” with a smiley face. Walters’ tweet came as local media were running stories about a Black OKC educator‘s work as a Santa Claus and as national media discussed “a drive to broaden traditional representations of Santa.” Although he claimed it was taken “out of context,” Walters’ wisecrack was viewed by many as racist owing to its unnecessary criticism of the idea that people of various backgrounds could portray a fictional character.

Questions also linger over Walters’ current full-time job as executive director of Every Kid Counts Oklahoma, an “education reform organization” that promotes school choice rhetoric, educates parents about their rights, and has received criticism for its administration of federal COVID-19 relief dollars in 2021.

In a recent interview for this article, Walters declined to say whether he intends to step down from Every Kid Counts Oklahoma or keep his education advocacy job while drawing a second salary as the top public education official in the state. The question has raised a variety of concerns, even causing some school reform proponents to fret privately about a potential conflict of interest.

“That’s an internal conversation that my board is working on, on what the organization will look like moving forward,” Walters said, referencing the EKCO board.

State Board of Education member Jennifer Monies, who also serves on EKCO’s board and who once ran a former version of the organization called Oklahoma Achieves, also declined to comment on the potential that Walters would draw two paychecks: one for leading the State Department of Education and the second for leading a privately (and sometimes secretly) funded organization that aims to reform that same department.

Monies said any conversations about conflicts of interest happen in the executive sessions of EKCO board meetings, something she did not feel comfortable discussing.

But while Walters and Monies declined to discuss the intersection of duties for his two jobs, Walters is already leading meetings of a coalition that aims to lobby the Oklahoma Legislature into approving some sort of private school voucher plan in 2023.

“It is an incredibly popular topic to discuss, ‘How do we really empower families through school choice and through options, and what does that look like?'” Walters said. “I mean, these are conversations that are being had daily across the state. I have loved the feedback and loved working with all these key stakeholders from across the state, and (I am) very excited about where this is going to end up this session.”

‘A mandate’: Ryan Walters hints at OSDE plans

Ryan Walters school choice
Ryan Walters addresses the audience at a Washington County GOP meeting in Bartlesville while on the campaign trail on Monday, Oct. 17, 2022. (Bennett Brinkman)

Expanding school choice via vouchers has been a divisive topic both statewide and nationally. SB 1647, called the Oklahoma Empowerment Act, was a school choice bill that narrowly failed in the State Senate last year. Although it appeared in different versions before ultimately dying, the bill proposed putting state money into Education Savings Accounts (ESAs) for parents to then withdraw and use on alternative education options, such as private school tuition or homeschooling expenses.

Critics of private school vouchers say that they defund public education, particularly in rural areas. Advocates, however, argue that parents should have more options for and control over their kids’ education. During his campaign, Walters advocated for such a system, saying parents must have as many choices as possible.

Publicly, as his tweets would suggest, Walters has seemed to focus more on getting what he calls “ideology” out of schools, but when it comes to the 2023 legislative session, school choice questions could comprise the deeper policy debate.

With the session slated to start Feb. 6, Walters has been hosting a weekly school choice coalition meeting via Zoom on Mondays. Although attendance varies, notable organizations invited to those meetings include national advocacy groups and local heavyweights, such as the State Chamber of Commerce, the Oklahoma Council of Public Affairs, the American Federation for Children-Oklahoma, Yes. Every Kid., and the Cristo Rey Network. The public relations firm Saxum and the lobbying firm McSpadden, Milner and Rott are also invited to the meetings.

Walters declined to describe details of the meetings, saying instead that he has “daily” discussions about how to expand school choice.

“I’m going to tell you, I’m having conversations — I wouldn’t say weekly, I would say daily — with all kinds of stakeholders across the state about the path forward,” Walters said. “I’m having great meetings with grassroots organizations across the state — great meetings with folks in the business community, great meetings with folks in the religious community — preachers and pastors — great meetings with the leadership in the House and the Senate.”

Monies, who is a senior vice president at Saxum, also declined to discuss details of the meetings.

“I think a lot of the members of the coalition talk a lot, especially leading up to (the start of a legislative) session,” Monies said. “I don’t know that there’s anything to say as far as what happens in the meetings, but leading up to session, there’s a bunch of different groups. There’s some that are on it some days, and some that are on it others.”

Even though details about any specific proposal are few at this point, Walters said he is confident that some kind of school choice plan has momentum in the state.

“We have a mandate,” Walters said. “The governor and I ran on education freedom and made that a very popular topic. We talked and promoted parental empowerment in every facet of what parental empowerment means: the transparency to make decisions, the ability to make those decisions, the money being able to follow the decisions being made by parents.

“It was also a topic of which the teachers unions attacked us on time and time again, and they brought in out-of-state money to attack us, and Oklahomans rejected the teachers union, and they agreed wholly with the belief that parents know best for their kids. And so we have a mandate moving forward, and we have a tremendous amount of momentum.”

‘No one forces you to put anything on social media’

Ryan Walters taught history at McAlester High School before taking a position in Gov. Kevin Stitt’s cabinet as Secretary of Education in 2020. (Bennett Brinkman)

Asked to rank his priorities for when he takes over OSDE, Walters said he “buckets” three topics together: getting “radical” liberal ideology out of schools, for which he blames unions and the federal government; increasing transparency for local districts and the state agency; and increasing school choice options.

“The first thing I see as a major issue is continuing to get the left-wing indoctrination out of our schools,” Walters said. “I have a lot of concerns about the transgender and sexual content that I’ve heard of kids being exposed to inside our schools, so I’m actively working with House and Senate leadership to strengthen the laws around sexual content to our youngest kids in schools.”

Walters’ has repeatedly denounced “transgenderism” and vowed to use laws such as HB 1775 to hold teachers accountable. His rhetoric has been criticized as transphobic — such as when he denied the existence of intersex people during a general election debate — and it has caught the attention of moderate Republicans at the State Capitol, as well as people he once taught who originally considered him “very good at understanding all students.”

“He would always make sure that I was feeling well,” said Gabei Williams, who had Walters as a teacher all four years she attended McAlester High School. “I noticed it with not just me but any of his kids. He just really made sure that we were at our best to learn that day.”

Williams said she felt Walters was a teacher in whom she could confide things she could not share with others.

“Any situations that I dealt with whenever I was being treated poorly, if I didn’t feel comfortable telling my own parents at that time, I would tell him or one of the other teachers that I felt comfortable with,” Williams said.

Williams, a senior in the University of Oklahoma’s Helmerich School of Drama, is heterosexual but considers herself an ally to the LGBTQ community. She said she was surprised to see that Walters has earned a reputation for making “transphobic” remarks and was “shocked” to hear his comments in a recent car video about a fight involving a transgender student at Edmond Memorial High School in October.

“That shocks me,” Williams said. “It shocks me because he is such a good person. That he would go out and make such a claim and then openly admit we don’t have the whole story. (…) No one forces you to put anything on social media.”

After acknowledging the “sticky situation” of Oklahoma’s laws regarding transgender students, Williams offered some suggestions for those in charge of Oklahoma schools.

“If someone would prefer specific pronouns, use those,” Williams said. “That’s as kind as you can be. Maybe even including a family bathroom at high schools — I think that would be a great first step because then situations like this would not implode and become more than it needs to be. I really think that these are simple things that would help these situations and keep [Walters] from standing directly in the line of fire.”

Williams also said Walters’ rhetoric is consistent with many people in McAlester and smaller Oklahoma towns.

“I really think that, at the end of the day, [he] is another very kind man who is simply very firm in his beliefs and in how he was raised,” Williams said. “And being from a small town, (I) totally get that. I really think that he just doesn’t have the form of adaptability. And I think that’s the best way to put it: That he’s willing to transform and not necessarily adapt.”

Walters ranked his second priority as bringing more transparency to school districts and the State Department of Education.

“I think that we’ve got to get to a place where we have true transparency in our schools,” Walters said. “This is about parents being able to see what’s being taught, but it’s also being able to see budgeting decisions in their local districts. (…) We’ve got to have some transparency there for folks to easily see how schools are spending money. I want to make that the same type of policy at the department where they can see the decisions that are made and the way money is spent at the department.”

Only after discussing “radicalism” and transparency did Walters mention school choice.

“Lastly — and, I think, you know, most importantly — we have got to give parents true educational freedom, which means the ability to choose the school of their choice and have the money follow the kids so that they can attend the school that they want,” Walters said.

Hofmeister’s advice: ‘Listen to wise counsel’

sovereign community school, western heights intervention
State Board of Education members chat before the start of their meeting Thursday, Dec. 15, 2022. (Bennett Brinkman)

As current state superintendent Joy Hofmeister, who was a frequent subject of Walters’ criticisms on the campaign trail, gave her final superintendent report at her last state board meeting Dec. 15, she did not mention her successor by name. But she did call teachers “heroes” in a message addressed specifically to Oklahoma’s educators.

“I am optimistic, and teachers in Oklahoma, you are largely the reason,” Hofmeister said after acknowledging the challenges facing the state’s education system. “Oklahoma’s teachers are doing incredible things in the classroom each and every day to help our kids reach their full potential. You devote countless hours (…) you invest the energy and hard work — often going unnoticed and under very challenging circumstances — to make meaningful connections with your students, with the communities that you serve, and it is where we do the important work of meeting them where they are. Teachers, (…) you are the bedrock of public education in Oklahoma, and you are heroes. All Oklahomans owe a debt of gratitude to you, and so much more.”

After the meeting, when asked if she had any advice for Walters, Hofmeister paused for a moment.

“Surround yourself with great people, and listen to wise counsel,” Hofmeister eventually said.

Wise counsel could be important for Walters, especially as rumors swirl that he is speaking with people about a potential run for governor in 2026.

Asked if he has gubernatorial aspirations, Walters took a page from his predecessor’s playbook and artfully avoided answering the question directly.

“I’m dedicated right now to doing all that I can to improve our schools,” Walters said. “My 100 percent focus is how do we get this done in a way that improves kids’ education as soon as possible. I have a real sense of urgency because, I mean, these are kids we’re talking about.”

Walters expanded on that urgency with an anecdote.

“I had a mother that called me the other night — it’s one that particularly stands out to me — that just broke down crying about her daughter’s experience in school,” Walters said. “There were violent attacks on her daughter, and she’s trying to get her daughter out of this environment and wants to send her daughter to a different school.

“I mean, she expressed concern not only for her daughter’s academic performance but just (for) her livelihood, and (she) expressed concerns about the path her daughter was going down. And it was a heartbreaking call to hear because those are the calls that strike me to have a sense of urgency. To know we’ve got kids that are not in the best environment for them — we’ve got kids that are struggling right now — and we have got to do all we can to improve their education, because it can make a world of difference.”

(Correction: This article was updated at 10:55 a.m., Wednesday, Dec. 28, to correct a reference to executive session board meetings.)