board of education accreditation
State Superintendent of Public Instruction Ryan Walters greets State Board of Education members before a meeting Thursday, March 23, 2023. (Bennett Brinkman)

(Correction: This article was updated at 1:33 on Tuesday, June 6, 2023, to remove incorrect explanations of opt-out provisions for sex education in schools. Oklahoma statute requires schools to allow parents to opt out of sex education for their students if they so choose, and the rules approved by the board at the March 23, 2023, meeting do not change that provision.)

Oklahoma State Board of Education members unanimously approved 11 new school accreditation rules Thursday, including a controversial item: a requirement for schools to notify parents of “identity information” about their children.

A thunderous round of applause greeted Superintendent of Public Instruction Ryan Walters today when he walked into the board room of the Oliver Hodge Building for the third State Board of Education meeting of his tenure.

After the swearing in of new member Katie Quebedeaux, Walters said his customary prayer, in which he asked for parental rights “as God intended.”

Thursday’s meeting featured more than an hour of public comments, largely from people who favored the new rules. That was a stark change from a separate meeting last week where four hours of public comment was dominated by people opposed to the new rules. Walters did not attend that meeting.

Tulsa Public Schools board member E’Lena Ashley, who posted on social media to encourage a crowd at Thursday’s meeting, was among the 22 people who made public comments to the board. She praised Walters for fulfilling his campaign promises with the proposed rules.

“We are causing a divide when we tell a little boy that he can’t be a little boy or a little girl that they can’t be what they were born to be,” Ashley said. “We need to have sound advice and academics and education for our students, and we need to protect both parents, teachers and educators in the classroom.”

Each of the 11 proposed rules considered by the state board Thursday eventually passed unanimously with little discussion from board members. The 11 rules concern:

  • School media and library programs,
  • Parental rights,
  • Driver education,
  • English language learner programs,
  • Advanced, lead and master teachers,
  • Local professional development programs,
  • Adjunct teachers,
  • Transportation,
  • Concurrent enrollment,
  • Student services, and
  • School facilities

While most of the new rules were routine matters concerning laws passed by the Legislature last year, the two concerning libraries and parental rights were new and controversial.

Though passed by the board, the new rules will not go into effect unless the Legislature’s Joint Committee on Administrative Rules approves them and the governor does not veto them.

The first rule approved by the board touches on Walters’ frequent campaign pledge to remove pornography from schools.

“The State Board of Education recognizes its duty and responsibility to protect minor students from accessing Pornographic materials and Sexualized content and will implement this duty by exercising the State Board of Education’s authority to adopt policies and make rules for public schools,” the rule’s introduction reads.

After defining terms such as “pornographic” and “sexualized,” the rule would require districts to submit lists of books available to students to OSDE each year, and it prohibits school libraries from providing “pornographic materials or sexualized content” to students. If schools willfully fail to comply with the rule, the district’s accreditation could be downgraded.

The second rule concerns the “rights” of parents to be involved in their child’s education.

Many of those making public comments at Thursday’s meeting praised that rule, claiming schools are hiding information such as gender or sexual orientation of students from their parents.

“We’ve actually seen in schools (…) that parents have to prove whether they are safe or not before you share information with them,” Walters said to reporters after the meeting. “And so what we’re saying is, obviously, there are major misunderstandings out there in our schools.”

The new rule would adopt the “Parents’ Bill of Rights” and rules surrounding such rights. The Parents’ Bill of Rights was also adopted by the Legislature in 2014.

Despite such laws already existing in state statute, Walters said the new agency rules were needed because schools have not been complying with the law.

The rule requires schools to notify parents of “any information known to the school district or its employees regarding material changes reasonably expected to be important to parent(s) regarding their child’s health, social, or psychological development, including identity information.”

Many who opposed the rules argued that such requirements would force schools to notify parents of students’ sexual or gender orientation before they were ready.

“I hope that you all know that you have the lives of transgender, two-spirit, nonbinary and gender-nonconforming youth before you, and if you advance these rules, there will be young people who will die,” said Nicole McAfee, executive director of Freedom Oklahoma. I don’t say that lightly. If you advance these rules, there will be young people who will die.”

Walters displays graphic sex scenes from books

Besides the new accreditation rules, the board took few other non-routine actions.

Walters was the subject of a recent op-ed from Clytie Bunyan of The Oklahoman, which criticized his “unabashedly racist” rhetoric and called for his resignation. Walters, who has also received more muted criticism from some Republican lawmakers, made his feelings known during his report to the board.

After calling out teachers’ unions for doing “all that they can to destroy public education,” Walters announced that he would pause his remarks to allow anyone who is “squeamish” to leave the room.

After waiting for three full minutes, Walters resumed his speech.

“Every one of you has been lied to,” Walters said. “You have been lied to by the radical teachers union. You have been lied to by the press. You have been lied to by Democrats and activists around the state.”

Walters said that he is not for book bans, as unions, media, Democrats and activists claim, but that he does want to remove books displaying what he calls pornographic content.

Walters had three books with him that he laid out on the table in the State Board of Education room: Lawn Boy, by Jonathan Evison; Gender Queer, by Maia Kobabe; and Stamped, by Jason Reynolds and Ibram X. Kendi.

While he admitted after the meeting that he had not read the three books cover to cover, Walters publicly displayed pictures from Gender Queer on the screens of the meeting room. The images contained explicit sex scenes.

Walters has discussed Gender Queer previously, criticizing its inclusion in Tulsa Public Schools libraries in August. He has also tweeted about Let’s Talk About It, criticizing OKCPS for having it listed in its online catalog. But OKCPS officials said that was the result of using a national vendor and that access to the book had been removed.

“This is an attack not only on your children, it’s an attack on your family, on the values of this country and the values of this state,” Walters said. “I don’t care if this was just in one classroom in the state. That is inappropriate for any child in the state of Oklahoma to have in their school libraries. Parents are under attack. Our values are under attack. And we have some elected Republicans attacking me for saying that I will not stand for this material to be in our schools.”