(Update: This article was updated at 5:46 p.m. Thursday, April 13, to include a non-binding letter from Attorney General Gentner Drummond advising that Walters could have violated Oklahoma’s dual office-holding law by holding the Secretary of Education and State Superintendent of Public Instruction positions simultaneously.)
Since Ryan Walters was sworn into office as state superintendent of public instruction in January, Oklahoma Gov. Kevin Stitt has faced questions about whether it was appropriate to retain Walters simultaneously as his secretary of education, a Cabinet position that acts as a liaison between the governor’s office and 40 executive entities, including the State Department of Education and the State Regents for Higher Education.
On Tuesday, with Walters facing an uncertain confirmation process in the State Senate, Stitt pulled the plug on his political ally’s ability to draw dual state paychecks as superintendent and secretary. Stitt selected OSU assistant professor Katherine Curry to replace Walters as secretary of education, and he rearranged other proverbial human accoutrements in his Cabinet on Tuesday as well.
“Katherine brings a wealth of experience to oversee the many different areas of education across the state, including higher education and career tech,” Stitt said in a press release. “I look forward to her leadership and service as we work towards making Oklahoma a top 10 state in education.”
Curry thanked the governor for his decision.
“I’m excited to partner with Gov. Stitt in his pursuit of making Oklahoma Education top 10,” Curry said in the same release. “Oklahoma has some of the best teachers in the nation, and I look forward to walking alongside these educators to continue creating the strongest educational ecosystem in the country.”
Curry holds graduate degrees from Southeastern Oklahoma State University and the University of Oklahoma, and she joined the OSU faculty in 2011 as a professor in the College of Education, School of Educational Studies.
Walters had been selected as Stitt’s secretary of education in September 2020, but Stitt’s reelection in November to a second term means all of his Cabinet secretary positions will need to be confirmed again before the Legislature adjourns in May.
“I am excited to have Dr. Curry on our team,” Walters said in Stitt’s press release. “The governor and I are passionate about improving K-12 for all students, improving higher education, and supporting our great teachers to make Oklahoma a top 10 state for education. We are all committed to transparency and accountability to ensure all education institutions are in line with Oklahoma values.”
Asked whether it was his decision or Stitt’s decision to make a change in the secretary of education position, Walters said that “him and I have been working on this for a while.”
“The governor and I have been working to add someone to the team — very excited to have her on the team,” Walters said following the conclusion of a Statewide Virtual Charter School Board meeting Tuesday. “The governor and I are going to continue working to make us top 10 in every aspect of education. That includes K-12, career tech and higher ed, so (I am) happy to have a new partner on the team.”
Leaders of the State Senate, which confirms or rejects gubernatorial appointments, had provided limited comment on whether they might reconfirm Walters owing to questions about whether it was legal and appropriate for the state superintendent of public instruction to receive a second state salary as secretary of education.
“We’re looking into that. Some issues have been raised about it. We know there’s the Sandy Garrett example, but I know there are some nuanced differences,” Senate President Pro Tempore Greg Treat (R-OKC) said Feb. 9. “We want to make sure that we comply with the law, and if they are qualified and are given a fair shake, I obviously — he’s my constituent, and I ran his confirmation before his election. But that’s a new wrinkle, so we’re looking into it.”
On March 7, Attorney General Gentner Drummond sent a letter to Treat advising that Walters simultaneously holding the secretary and superintendent positions likely violates a state law prohibiting a person from holding dual offices. The letter, while non-binding, cited multiple state statutes and prior court cases.
“It is my conclusion that Mr. Walters cannot simultaneously serve as Secretary of Education and State Superintendent,” Drummond wrote.
Treat did not release the letter until after Stitt removed Walters as secretary, more than a month later.
Asked if Treat had further comment on whether Walters had the Senate votes necessary for confirmation, spokesman Alex Gerszewski did not respond prior to the publication of this article.
Stitt adjusts other cabinet positions
Earlier Tuesday, Stitt announced the broader changes to his Cabinet, including:
- creating the secretary of operations and government efficiency position;
- creating the secretary of workforce development position; and
- eliminating the secretary of science and innovation.
Stitt’s press release noted that a governor’s Cabinet can consist of no more than 15 positions, and it said Oklahoma Chief Operating Officer John Suter would become the new secretary of operations and government efficiency.
The press release stated that Stitt’s secretary of workforce development will be formally announced following a recommendation from the Governor’s Workforce Transformation Task Force.
(Update: This article was updated at 4:40 p.m. Tuesday, April 11, to include additional quotes from Ryan Walters.)