ryan walters House committee
State Superintendent of Public Instruction Ryan Walters stands with top advisor Matt Langston moments before a meeting of the House Appropriations and Budget Committee on Monday, May 1, 2023. (Bennett Brinkman)

In a conference room packed with legislators, journalists, school district administrators, top aides of the State Department of Education and members of the public both supportive and critical of him, State Superintendent of Public Instruction Ryan Walters fired missives at Democrats and teacher unions while testifying before the House Appropriations and Budget Committee weeks after representatives first asked him to do so.

With chief political advisor Matt Langston standing near the room’s doorway and tweeting in response to committee members during the meeting, Walters answered questions from representatives for more than two hours until a final dust up with Democrats caused Appropriations and Budget Committee Vice Chairman Ryan Martinez (R-Edmond) to end the protracted meeting abruptly.

Lawmakers, including Martinez and House Speaker Charles McCall (R-Atoka), expressed great concern with the Oklahoma State Department of Education’s process for pursuing federal grants. The two House leaders asked Walters to provide a written description of the agency’s decision-making process for federal grants by Monday, May 8. Similarly, House members also asked for other materials, including the status of current applications for federal grants, information on the state’s Redbud district funding program and information on how “indoctrination” is occurring in classrooms.

By May 15, Walters was asked to compile a list of emails he has received in his capacity as chairman of the board of commissioners for the Office of Educational Quality and Accountability.

Additionally, Walters seemed to support the House’s position in the Legislature’s ongoing education funding package stalemate. In response to questions from House Majority Floor Leader Jon Echols (R-OKC), Walters said his agency estimated that the Senate’s new version of the education plan contains some unfunded mandates for which individual districts would have to foot the bill.

Walters on teacher unions: ‘They’re a terrorist organization’

Ryan Walters woke
Superintendent of Public Instruction Ryan Walters speaks in front of the House Appropriations and Budget Committee on Monday, May 1, 2023. (Tres Savage)

Monday’s meeting saw representatives on both sides of the aisle ask numerous questions, and some of Walters’ responses drew strong reactions from members.

Walters came out of the gate swinging. In responding to McCall’s opening questions regarding federal grants, the superintendent fired shots in all directions.

“I’m going to be real direct. It was an absolute dumpster fire when we got to this agency,” Walters said. “Joy Hofmeister had ran this administration — this agency — into the ground, and what we started doing very quickly was ensuring there would be accountability for every dollar spent.”

Walters continued his answer to McCall by attacking teachers unions.

“And again, we have organizations like the teachers union that have gone out there and spread all kinds of lies about what’s going on in the agency,” Walters said. “The teachers union — I don’t negotiate with the teachers union, they’re a terrorist organization —”

Democrats and public school employees in the room groaned and grumbled, prompting Walters to look in the direction of the dismayed and smile before continuing.

“— that has continued to spread misinformation around the state and lie about our administration,” Walters continued. “So, speaker, my goal has always been to provide transparency, truth and be very, very open and honest with every single program and everything that we’re doing.”

Subsequent questioning from Rep. Mike Osburn (R-Edmond) pressed Walters to describe the Oklahoma State Department of Education personnel changes that have drawn media attention since he took office.

Walters said 37 agency employees resigned with the administrative change and seven were fired. Walters also said 17 positions have been eliminated since he took control. Currently, he said OSDE has nine vacant positions.

Osburn asked Walters about some lawmakers’ perception that his administration has lacked professionalism and proper communication with the Legislature.

“That’s completely wrong,” Walters responded. “What we’ve done is been more transparent and communicated better than the previous administration ever has. You know, some folks don’t like accountability and oversight, and that’s what I promise to bring to state government — that every employee would be held accountable for their job performance. We are 49th in education outcomes — 49th. I’m going to tell you, that meant some folks need to go.”

Nearly 15 minutes later, Walters doubled down on his “dumpster fire” assessment of OSDE in response to a question from Martinez that asked him to provide details about federal grants for which the agency has applied.

“When we came on board, there was no process in place on applying for these grants,” Walters said. “There were grants that would come and go. There were decisions made around whether to apply for one or not apply for one, but again, there was no description of how decisions were made. We are creating a process through which you can see — this is how we evaluate grants. This is the criteria we use.”

Walters emphasized that his administration has “not missed a single deadline” when applying for grants.

After a couple more exchanges with other committee members, Rep. Marcus McEntire (R-Duncan) brought the conversation to one of Walters’ favorite buzzwords: indoctrination.

“So you’re saying you’re not sure if this (liberal indoctrination) isn’t in other schools or is in other schools?” McEntire asked.

Walters gave one of his trademark answers, referencing the multitudes of communications he has with parents across the state.

“Oh, it’s in other schools,” Walters said. “Yes, sir. We are getting complaints and issues about this every day. As a matter of fact, I would welcome anyone from the legislative body to travel with me as I meet with parents across the state every day. It’s a concern we hear.”

A few minutes later, Walters doubled down on his assessment of teachers unions as “terrorist organizations” during an exchange with Rep. Monroe Nichols (D-Tulsa).

“I’m really curious as to why you would make that connection between the two. Terrorists blow up buildings — kill innocent people, they usually don’t show up in classrooms across the state of Oklahoma to educate kids,” Nichols said. “How do you believe you’re going to be able to pull off all these big, grand plans if you’re having such a difficult time engaging the folks that you’re going to have to partner with to make sure that those plans come to their full fruition down the road?”

Walters answered by implying that unions held schools hostage during COVID-19 lockdowns.

“We had kids struggling tremendously at home. We had suicide rates going through the roof,” Walters said. “And we had a group of individuals say, ‘You know, if you pay us enough money here from federal dollars, we’ll open them back up.’ I don’t negotiate with folks that are going to intentionally sabotage our kids. (…) You are hurting kids intentionally to shake down the federal government for money — that’s a terrorist organization in my book.”

Nichols responded by articulating a desire for understanding between teachers and the superintendent.

“There’s a hope that our campaigning is different than how we might lead,” Nichols said. “One thing I’ll agree with you on is outcomes for kids are not where they should be. One thing I will challenge you on is I don’t think calling teachers terrorists and going around and talking about indoctrination and all that kind of stuff is going to change that.”

Walters appeared frustrated. After saying he appreciated Nichols’ comments, he said that they might have to “respectfully disagree.”

“When I hear folks say, ‘Why are you talking about stuff you said on the campaign trail?’ I want you to hear — what does that mean?” Walters said. “So was the expectation that I lied to voters when I told them I’m going to get indoctrination out of schools? (…) I am going to do what I said I’m going to do. (…) Guys, I meant it.”

After Monday’s meeting, some committee members expressed frustration with the proceedings, particularly Walters’ repeated allegation of Democrats “lying,” his statements about unions and his claims regarding pornographic material in school libraries.

“It was embarrassing. Just his lack of actual knowledge is embarrassing,” said Rep. Melissa Provenzano (D-Tulsa). “Fighting imaginary demons is a waste of time.”

The Oklahoma Education Association, one of the state’s three main teacher unions, released a statement on Twitter.

“In less radical times, the State Superintendent of Public Instruction calling the educators who serve in our public school classrooms ‘terrorists’ would be shocking,” read the statement posted by the organization, which is led by OEA president Katherine Bishop. “However, this inflammatory and demonizing rhetoric continues to escalate in ways that endanger our educators and undermine public education.”

After the meeting, Walters seemed unfazed when asked for his reaction to the hearing.

“I think it was great,” Walters said. “I love being able to have these kinds of discussions and air this out.”

Walters defended his remarks about teacher unions when asked how the educators he claims he wants to recruit might interpret his words.

“I know how they’re going to react. They are going to ask questions of their union bosses that are not in line with most of their teachers and most of their members,” Walters said. “They’re going to go, ‘Wait, were we really closing down schools and negotiating billions of dollars in a government buyout? Were we really trying to mandate vaccines?’ I’m going to tell you, there is a difference between union leadership and most of their members. So I’m bringing up these points so that teachers know and see, ‘Wait, those aren’t my values.’ I have teachers tell me all the time, ‘I didn’t know that. I didn’t know that was a position.’ They need to be up front with what their positions are.”

‘Beating the drum and scaring grandma’

During the meeting, Walters had a pair of fiery exchanges with Rep. Regina Goodwin (D-Tulsa).

“You continue to spew your opinions. You continue to tell us what President Biden thinks,” Goodwin said. “We’re really more concerned about what you think, but you are readily and anxiously and eagerly letting us know everyday who you are and what you represent — which, quite frankly, does not represent all children.”

Goodwin then asked how Walters represents Oklahoma.

“Yeah, I mean, everything you said there was wrong, respectfully, representative,” Walters said.

Goodwin interrupted him, saying that all she heard was rhetoric.

After the pair completed their exchange, House Appropriations and Budget Education Subcommittee Chairman Mark McBride, who originally requested that Walters meet with lawmakers, asked Walters if he believes obscene books in libraries pose a problem prevalent enough to demand as much attention as Walters has devoted.

“So we’ve got over 540 school districts in the state,” McBride said. “I agree that we do not want this on the shelves and we want that taken off, but is it something to go around beating the drum scaring grandma about?”

Walters insisted the issue is common, even referencing Owasso Public Schools by name.

“It’s one of the number one things I’m asked about. It’s one of the number one requests that we get is these issues in schools,” Walters said. “And so, again, I’m always going to listen to parents. I’m always going to say, ‘Look, one piece of pornography is too much.'”

After the meeting, Owasso Public Schools Superintendent Margaret Coates stood in the hall and watched Walters speak with Rep. Mark Vancuren (R-Owasso).

“It was frustrating because he is using Owasso as an example when this book was removed Aug. 24 from our shelf, and we went through the self-audit doing the right thing — per our policy — doing the right thing for our community and our students,” Coates said. “To continue to be used as an example does not seem fair when he has not reached out directly to our district to even confer or find details out about the situation — to verify facts.”

Although Coates said one graphic novel had been removed in August and 6,000 other comic books have been reviewed by an independent committee, Walters referenced a report by Nuria Martinez-Keel of The Oklahoman that said Owasso Public Schools had decided to keep a book called Flamer on its shelves after the review. Walters said he wanted to know more about the novel.

In the end, Monday’s meeting concluded with a chaotic uproar from the Democrats’ side of the table after Walters accused them of wanting to erase the Bible from history. Moments before, Goodwin had lambasted the superintendent for his “racist-tinged comments” and “divisiveness.”

“Help me with your plan (to improve student outcomes),” Goodwin said. “Don’t do any more flame-throwing. Just talk about, really, how you are committed to that, and if you’re not committed to that, what kind of talk with Jesus do you have to have tonight to get on track?”

Walters replied by saying he does not care “if people are triggered by what I say.”

Martinez said he would allow one question from Rep. Forrest Bennett (D-OKC) and one question from Rep. Dick Lowe (R-Amber), after which he would end the meeting and give participation medals to everyone who stayed for its entirety.

But Lowe never got to ask his question after Bennett asked Walters about a video supporting more Bibles in schools.

“Democrats want to strike out any mentions of the Bible from our history,” Walters said.

When Democrats protested that Walters’ assertion was not true, Martinez banged his gavel and adjourned the meeting.