Ryan Walters board meeting
Oklahoma State Board of Education member Trent Smith gesticulates during a discussion at a meeting Thursday, Jan. 26, 2023. (Bennett Brinkman)

At his first State Board of Education meeting this morning, Superintendent of Public Instruction Ryan Walters presented an amended Oklahoma State Department of Education budget request for Fiscal Year 2024. With limited discussion, board members unanimously approved the request, which is presented annually to the Legislature as a reflection of the agency’s funding priorities and desires. The request is in no way binding.

Walters, who campaigned on expanding school choice options for students, also found himself voting to terminate the state board’s sponsorship of a troubled Oklahoma City charter school aimed at serving Native American students.

In practice, Walters, along with four of the five other board members present at Thursday’s meeting, voted to issue a notice of the board’s intention to end Sovereign Community School’s sponsorship. Based on the board’s motion, the school will receive the notice in June (after the spring semester concludes) and will have the option to request an informal hearing before the board. After that, members will vote to finalize or reverse their termination decision.

Next week, Walters will present the new OSDE budget request to in a joint hearing between the House and Senate education appropriations subcommittees on Wednesday. The House subcommittee’s chairman, Rep. Mark McBride (R-Moore), attended today’s state board meeting, sitting in the front row of the audience with House Common Education Chairwoman Rhonda Baker (R-Yukon) and Rep. Sherrie Conley (R-Newcastle).

After the Legislature convenes for its 2023 regular session on Feb. 6, lawmakers will ultimately determine the FY 2024 budget for OSDE and other state agencies. There is no guarantee that the finalized budget will include any specific proposal from the state board’s request.

The amended request includes a performance-based teacher pay raise ranging from $2,500 to $10,000. The previous request, which the board approved in September under prior State Superintendent Joy Hofmeister, asked for an across-the-board $5,000 raise.

“It is urgent that we drastically improve education,” Walters told reporters after the meeting. “That means doing things different than the status quo, and right now the status quo has gotten us to 49th in education. We have some amazing educators in the state. We have some amazing individuals that want to get an education. We have to start doing things differently. That means basing a plan on (an) incentive pay package to attract the best and brightest and keep the best and brightest in the profession.”

Walters said his proposed pay raises would be tied to teacher evaluations and to the amount of “professional learning hours” they have completed. So-called “merit pay” proposals have been championed before by Gov. Kevin Stitt and some Republican legislators, but the complicated nature of assessing teacher performance has stalled the concept in the Legislature.

“Our incentive pay package relies upon the (teacher) evaluation system in place, and it also allows for teachers to prove the developments that they’ve had in order to grow. So this gives a lot of flexibility,” Walters said.

After the meeting, McBride said he can support performance-based pay raises, but he also wants to see more kinds of raises for teachers.

“I’m thinking like a $2,000 to 3,000 base pay (increase), and then merit-based pay, and then let’s start looking at cost of living (salary) increases every year,” said McBride, as he sat in his office with his feet propped on his desk to review items with his legislative assistant.

Walters’ modified request also proposes allocating $100 million for early childhood literacy, including educator training on the Science of Reading, a curriculum that focuses on teaching young students phonics as they learn to read.

“This is the biggest, most aggressive reading plan in the country,” Walters said. “There’s no one else that is proposing a reading plan that says every single child that isn’t reading on grade level will have a high-quality teacher that’s got the training, that has the resources, that (has) tutoring. There’s no other state that’s done this. This is a significant amount of investment. It is aggressive, but we have to have a sense of urgency. We have to be aggressive on this.”

If granted, Walters said the $100 million budget request would go to things such as “tutoring, training of teachers (and) the resources for teachers” to adopt the curriculum.

In all, the new OSDE budget request totals more than $3.5 billion, but it is $59 million less than the previous budget request approved in September by a state board that featured several different members.

Thirty minutes after Thursday’s state board meeting ended, House Speaker Charles McCall (R-Atoka) further explained the budget request process as he left the State Capitol just south of OSDE.

“We have these budget hearings not only to see how monies were spent that we appropriated previously but what is it that you’re going to be asking for the Legislature to consider this year,” McCall said. “Once we see those things, we will certainly take those under advisement and we will work the budget process, because constitutionally the Legislature is charged with creating laws and the creating a budget every year and creating the priorities that the people of Oklahoma think are most important. But we always take advice from the executive branch.”

Three new board members’ attend first meeting

After Stitt appointed four new board members Jan. 10, three of them had their first meeting Thursday. Marla Hill was absent and could not be sworn in as a result.

A spokesman for Walters did not return a request for information on Hill’s whereabouts prior to publication of this article.

The three new board members present at the meeting stayed mostly quiet while board member Trent Smith — who is starting his third year on the board — took the lead on making motions for actions and keeping the discussion moving. However, each new member chimed in on the meeting’s longest discussion about Sovereign Community School.

Walters opened the morning’s meeting with a prayer, which included reference to his school choice goals. In his opening remarks that followed, Walters acknowledged his own novelty to the board that he is now charged with leading. Then he outlined his priorities for the department.

“There is a loud and vocal crowd, a minority for sure, that say that all that is needed to fix the problems in education is to toss more money and to leave everything alone,” Walters said. “This is not the direction we are going. We will reform all of our education system. There will be accountability and transparency. There will be school choice. We will ensure that indoctrination and [critical race theory] are eliminated in our state. We will also make sure that our kids are safe. There will be no boys in the girls bathrooms. There will be no pornography in our schools. We will make sure all of our vendors and the schools are focused on education and not diversity, equity and inclusion.”

In his short time in office, Walters has already started to take action on some of those priorities, including recently asking the chancellor of the State Regents for Higher Education to “please proved a full outline and review of every dollar that has been spent over the last 10 years on diversity, equity, inclusion.”

School closure and certification suspension

The meeting’s longest discussion, totaling over an hour, was one that the board picked back up after tabling it in December, but with three new members involved this time around. Sovereign Community School, a charter school that opened in 2019 and which has faced myriad problems financially and academically, could be closed over the summer after the state board’s vote Thursday.

Currently, the school is hundreds of thousands of dollars in debt. Each of the school’s grade levels has less than 10 percent of students who score proficient or higher in English and math. The school has had five leadership changes in the last three and a half years.

State board members indicated support for the school’s current leadership, board President Kendra Wilson-Clements and Superintendent Allison Black, both of whom defended Sovereign in front of the board Thursday. But the state board said the charter school’s problems had gone on long enough.

“I’m a huge proponent — and I think we all are — of high-performing charters,” Walters said. “Sovereign is not a high-performing charter school. There’s no way to mince words on that. (…) I feel very comfortable in moving forward with termination.”

Donald Burdick, a new board member who expressed support for the new leadership at Sovereign being able to turn the school around, was the only vote against issuing notice of sponsorship termination.

The board also voted to issue an emergency suspension of Sarah Hull-Degroat’s teacher certification. Hull-Degroat resigned her teaching position at Deer Creek Public Schools last month after she was arrested for allegedly using Google Docs to sext with a student.

(Correction: This article was updated at 4:27 p.m. Thursday, Jan. 26, 2023, to correct reference to a subcommittee hearing date.)