education roundup
Oklahoma Statewide Virtual Charter School Board members heard a presentation from the Archdiocese of Oklahoma City asking for authorization for a Catholic virtual charter school on Tuesday, Feb. 14, 2023. (Bennett Brinkman)

With a new superintendent leading the Oklahoma State Department of Education and a new session starting in the Legislature, a lot is happening in the education world right now.

Here’s a roundup of important Oklahoma education stories you might have missed in the last few days, weeks and months.

SVCSB hears Catholic school application

On Tuesday, Feb. 14, the Archdiocese of Oklahoma City presented its application for a Catholic virtual charter school to the Statewide Virtual Charter School Board.

Named for St. Isidore of Seville, the patron saint of the internet and technology, the proposed school would be jointly run by the Archdiocese of Oklahoma City and the Diocese of Tulsa.

The application and presentation come after former Attorney General John O’Connor issued an opinion in December declaring his interpretation that the aspects of the Oklahoma Charter School Act requiring charter schools to be nonreligious and nonsectarian are unconstitutional.

While the opinion is nonbinding on state boards and agencies that deal with the Oklahoma Charter School Act, it did set up the argument that the Archdiocese of Oklahoma City is making as it applies for authorization for a Catholic virtual charter school.

The SVCSB has until April 29 to make its decision on whether to authorize the new school. Calling the legality of the school a “monumental” hurdle, board Chairman Robert Franklin said he thought the presentation was “solid.”

“Certainly, they made a solid presentation,” Franklin said. “There was nothing what I would consider to be coy or subterfuge — it was pretty much, ‘This is who we are. This is what we want it to be.’ I appreciated their candor, so there’s obviously a lot of legal gymnastics that are before us.”

Franklin asked numerous questions of the presenters as they made their case, including if students of the proposed charter school would have to take a “required religious indoctrination type of course.”

Laura Schuler, senior director of Catholic education for the archdiocese, gave a candid answer.

“In Catholic schools, the Catholic faith is a required course all the way through,” Schuler said.

The question of the potential new school’s legality will most likely be settled in courts. Charter schools are public schools that can be privately run, so if the SVCSB authorizes the application, state money would go to the Catholic virtual school.

Mistake causes higher Dover property taxes

oklahoma education roundup
Dover Public Schools Superintendent Jay Wood sent a letter to taxpayers in the district informing them that a mistake in property valuation caused them to pay higher property taxes. (Provided)

In November, Dover Public Schools Superintendent Jay Wood sent a letter to property taxpayers in the district informing them that the Kingfisher County assessor had made a mistake in the district’s property evaluation for 2021, valuing it higher than it should have been.

School district bonds are funded based on property tax evaluation, and, because the mistake could not be corrected, residents in Dover saw a significant property tax increase for 2022.

Wood also said in his letter that the issue is further compounded by wind and gas companies protesting $7 million of their taxes. Wind and gas ad valorem taxes also affect school districts’ bond repayments, and when companies litigate their taxes, the money is held in a separate account until the issue is resolved, preventing school districts from using funding allocated for them.

“This is an unfortunate incident, but one in which the school was not involved,” Wood wrote in his letter. “The only thing we can do as school patrons or as the school administration is contact our local and state elected officials and urge them to change the laws so that our large industrial businesses have to pay the $7 million protested property taxes in a timely manner.”

Walters: ‘I have instructed my staff…’

State Superintendent of Public Instruction Ryan Walters has had a busy first month in office. In between numerous budget meetings with the Legislature and swearing in three new state board members, Walters has also spent much time in his car, making videos taking aim at school districts and teachers.

In one of those videos, Walters said, “I have instructed my staff to immediately begin the processes to hold the two teachers accountable” who had drawn attention for their classroom policies. While he did not specify who those two teachers are in the video, his spokesman Matt Langston confirmed to Carmen Forman of the Tulsa World that they are Tulsa Public Schools teacher Tyler Wrynn and former Norman Public Schools teacher Summer Boismier. Conservatives had criticized both teachers over HB 1775, a new law that bans the teaching of certain concepts of race and gender.

More recently, Walters posted another video in response to a Libs of TikTok — a right-wing Twitter account — tweet regarding a library book purportedly in John Marshall Enterprise High School in Oklahoma City. The book, entitled “Let’s Talk About It: The Teen’s Guide to Sex, Relationships, and Being a Human,” is not available for checkout to students but was listed on the website because of a national vendor OKCPS uses for library books.

Walters said in the video, “I have instructed my staff at the State Department of Education to quickly have an official action to hold vendors accountable who allow these types of books into our schools and to hold districts accountable who provide access to these types of materials to our kids.”

In a tweet Feb. 10, Walters posted pictures of new standards of school district accreditation prohibiting pornography in schools and setting new standards concerning library book evaluations.

Walters has also made a number of staffing changes at OSDE. The department’s new head legal counsel, Bryan Cleveland, replaced Brad Clark, who moved to the attorney general’s office. According to his LinkedIn, Cleveland graduated from Harvard Law School and worked for three years in the attorney general’s office before moving to OSDE.

Also regarding the department’s legal office, assistant general counsel Lori Murphy was fired Jan. 26. Murphy had been an outspoken trans ally at OSDE, but no reason was given for her termination. Murphy received her termination notice the same day she wore a mask reading “trans ally” to Walters’ first State Board of Education meeting.

According to Nuria Martinez-Keel of The Oklahoman, Walters changed the designation of Murphy’s position four days after he took office so that it would be exempt from a section of state law allowing her to file a complaint over her termination.

“It was my honor to work my ass off on behalf of the students of Oklahoma,” Murphy said in a statement posted to Facebook Jan. 30. “*Every* student in Oklahoma is constitutionally and statutorily entitled to a free public education. And just as public education serves everyone, public education builds from the truth that *everyone* can learn and grow when provided with the educational services and supports they need.”

Murphy worked at the department for more than eight years.

Phil Bacharach and Rob Crissinger have also left OSDE since Walters took office. Formerly the department’s chief of staff, Bacharach also moved to the attorney general’s office, where he is the executive director of communications.

Crissinger is taking over as Epic Charter School’s executive director of communications after holding the same position at OSDE.

Western Heights leadership, election updates

At a meeting Monday, Feb. 13, Western Heights School board members voted to fill the board’s Seat 4 vacancy with Teresa Lewis, a retired Western Heights teacher. That seat, along with two others, opened up when three former board members abruptly resigned after months of controversy and calls from community members to do so.

Also at the meeting, Western Heights board members voted to make interim Superintendent Brayden Savage the permanent superintendent of the district. Savage has led the troubled district for a year as it has struggled to move out of the shadow of former Superintendent Mannix Barnes.

On Feb. 14, 220 voters cast ballots for the open Office 3 seat on the Western Heights Public Schools Board. With none of the three candidates topping 50 percent, Kelly Brown and Brayden Hunt will face off in the April 4 runoff.

Epic Charter School board rewards Banfield

Epic school board members voted to give Superintendent Bart Banfield a 5 percent raise at their Jan. 11 meeting. Banfield has led Epic since 2019 and helped the state’s largest virtual charter school navigate challenges as it moves beyond the leadership of its troubled founders.

More Epic news

On Jan. 11, Attorney General Gentner Drummond took over the prosecution of Epic’s two founders and former chief financial officer who were arrested in June on charges of racketeering, embezzlement and conspiracy.

Former Oklahoma County District Attorney David Prater had been prosecuting the case before Vicki Behenna took office last month, but Drummond moved the case to the attorney general’s office on his first full day in the position.

“These allegations involve tens of millions of Oklahoma tax dollars intended for public education, and the State has a strong interest in ensuring proper accountability,” Drummond said in the press release announcing his decision. “Given the statewide impact of this case on public education funding, I believe it is wholly appropriate that (it) fall under the purview of the Office of Attorney General.”

Ben Harris, David Chaney and Josh Brock are accused of embezzling state money from Epic’s “Learning Fund,” which parents could use for education-related purchases. Before they were arrested in June, they had been under investigation for years by the Oklahoma State Bureau of Investigation and State Auditor and Inspector Cindy Byrd.

Norman Public Schools: Board member sworn in, runoff set

At a meeting Jan. 9, Tina Floyd took her oath of office and joined the Norman Public Schools Board representing the Office 5. Floyd will finish the term of Linda Sexton, who resigned in November. Floyd is the owner of Oklahoma City Spark, a new professional softball team that will debut in June. Floyd also calls herself a “former educator” on her website.

Meanwhile, in the Feb. 14 election, a four-way race for Office 3 of the NPS board finished with no candidate receiving a majority of the vote. As a result, Annette Price and Kathleen Kennedy will face off in an April 4 runoff election.

Fate of voucher bill further complicated

Sen. Julie Daniels (R-Bartlesville) and Sen. Shane Jett (R-Shawnee) announced Jan. 19 that they had filed SB 822, entitled the Education Freedom Act, which would grant school choice to all students in the state. The filing raised the possibility of a second voucher fight in as many years in the Legislature.

According to the announcement, the bill would “provide parents the option of tapping into a portion of their child’s education dollars to pay for a variety of education services, including tuition.”

But on Thursday of this week, House Republicans announced and advanced a school choice bill that would offer parents tax credits, rather than the slightly different vouchers, for private or homeschool options.

Daniels said Thursday that she thinks the tax credit bill is a “very positive step forward,” but that “everything’s alive right now” regarding her voucher bill, even though it has not yet received a hearing in a Senate committee. (It was assigned to the Senate Rules Committee as opposed to the Education Committee.)

Between multiple school choice reform bills and Walters and Gov. Kevin Stitt both calling their elections a “mandate” for expanding school choice, the Legislature could be poised for another battle this session to create the controversial program, which would allow parents to spend state money on private school and homeschool educations.

Seen at the State Capitol during the first week of session, OKCPS Superintendent Sean McDaniel voiced cautious opposition to a private school voucher program in the state.

“There’s the potential that we could lose kids, but it’s a statewide issue. We can’t separate it necessarily into what’s going to happen in OKCPS versus what’s going to happen in rural or suburban,” McDaniel said. “This is a statewide issue, and as I understand it, public schools — common education — stands to lose with a voucher system if it indeed is providing subsidy for kids who go to private schools because it’s one pot of money. And that pot gets thinner and thinner and thinner as those private school families take advantage of it. I don’t begrudge a private school family who has this in front of them. If it’s in front of you, you take the assistance, right? But as a public school guy, it definitely without question, in my mind, it does dilute that pot of money that we have to distribute to other public schools.”