One week before Superintendent of Public Instruction Ryan Walters told a legislative committee that he considers teacher unions to be a “terrorist organization,” NonDoc reporter Bennett Brinkman and I ran into the firebrand State Department of Education leader near the elevators of the Oklahoma Capitol.
Although Bennett covers education for NonDoc with great gusto and effort, I personally had not conversed with nor interviewed Walters since his November election. Over that time, a pair of his tweets — one about “woke Santa” and another featuring scowling girls of dark complexion — were widely received as racist. The Oklahoman’s Clytie Bunyan outlined the tweets’ racial insinuations in a column asking Walters “to end disparaging rhetoric or resign.” Walters, meanwhile, has leaned into criticism of diversity, equity and inclusion programs, and he has continued to decry “woke” ideology, which he claims is infiltrating Oklahoma public schools at an alarming rate.
Our encounter in a mostly empty Capitol hallway on April 24 offered the chance for an impromptu interview with a controversial education figure, a challenge I have tackled before. Flanked by Bennett and OSDE’s new legislative liaison, Tucker Cross, our 23-minute conversation touched on legislative negotiations, the structure of OSDE and so-called “culture war” topics that have taken up much of Walters’ time on the campaign trail and in office.
The following 17-minute excerpt from that interview begins with a question about the term “woke,” leads to discussion of U.S. history pedagogy, and culminates with a conversation about sexual misconduct by school employees against students.
The transcript has been edited lightly for clarity and length.
Tres Savage: So, I just wanted to ask you, has anybody ever explained — are you aware of the original (meaning), the origin, the etymology of the term “woke?”
Ryan Walters: (laughing) Are you saying like the first time it was ever used in this context, or anything else?
Savage: Well, just, no — where it came from, like the original context of it. Do you know what that was about?
Walters: I think I do, but enlighten me.
Savage: Well, you tell me. What is your understanding of the original context?
Walters: Yeah, yeah. I mean, the first time I’ve been made aware of kind of where it has been used is this understanding and the belief that came out — I want to say ’60s or ’70s — that to be woke is to be aware of all the societal injustices, and the white race’s role in it, marriage’s — the traditional marriage — role in it, Christianity’s role in it, and starting to be awakened to that. And then as time has gone on, it’s been more prescriptive and, “Well, if you’re woke, you do these things.” But yeah, I would say that’s kind of the first —
Savage: Yeah, OK. I think that that’s close to my understanding. Some of my closest Black friends have sort of talked about how they feel like this word has gotten sort of stolen in the vocabulary. Because what they say is that the origin of it was — let’s say we’re all at a party, right? And you’ve had two beers, getting ready to leave. And your friend says to you, “Hey, stay woke,” which means, “Be aware.”
Walters: OK. I’ve never heard it in that context, but, OK, I got you.
Savage: If you get pulled over, say, “Yes sir.” It means understand that, as a Black person, you’ve got to be just a little more — you can’t be as maybe flippant as somebody else. Or you’ve got to just be aware that there are issues and factors that factor into —
Savage: So that’s the origin of it. And so with that in mind — if you talk about school choice, right? A lot of people don’t realize this: Minority communities — Democrats in particular — are split. You have minority communities that go, “Well, the traditional public school system has not served my community for decades,” right? They go, “We want to run our own charter. We want to have options to go to different places,” right?
Walters: Yep. Absolutely.
Savage: And so I think a lot of people felt like you had an opportunity to kind of come into office with that sort of crowd supporting a lot of the kind of the “school choice” policies.
Savage: And they go, “Ugh.” And I’ve seen some of my closest friends (…) they see that sort of social media stuff, and they just go, “I just… can’t.”
Savage: Because they feel like it’s not fully understood how they’re hearing those words that come out.
Savage: So I just thought — I told myself the next time I saw you, I would kind of have that conversation to see what your — I mean, does that change your — do you understand how that is viewed by folks like that?
Walters: Yeah, I mean, I think it’s unfortunate that that the “left” tries to perpetuate division by trying to blanket and do in a covert way and kind of in subterfuge, what they actually want to do. And so then when you go, “Hold on a second, I don’t think my kids should be in school in first grade, learning about their sexual orientation or that they’re a different gender.” Like I just — and again, we’ve had multiple people describe themselves as, “Hey, we are not conservative.” But this is — (they) came and testified at our board, that we do not want this in our schools.
Walters: Matter of fact, we’re here to say this has got to stop. I’ve had folks who would describe themselves as far-left liberals tell me the “woke” stuff — using the word in school — has to stop. So it is a term that most people use as a way of saying — what the left has used it for is to say, “We are weaponizing our ideology to say you have to act a certain way, and you have to do these certain prescriptions.” That is the way they have used the term. And now that the conservatives have pushed back, going, “Alright, well that — we don’t want in our schools, we don’t want forced on our kids.” Now, it’s “Oh, my goodness, hold on a second. Now, you’re a racist. You’re a bigot.” Well, I don’t play the games of political correctness. I’m never going to do that. I’m going to speak really directly to people.
You’ve heard about what is “woke,” which is telling your kids that they have got to waken up to sexuality in kindergarten, and we’re rejecting it. We’re gonna push it out. And so I’m just — I try to be really upfront with people. I’m trying to be really direct on my positions and what I think and what I believe. You know, I am passionate that every kid deserves a high-quality education. I’m passionate that every person deserves dignity — no matter their beliefs — no matter what they view about anything. But when you’re pushing things on kids that I think is grossly inappropriate, I think we have to push back, and we have to hold the line. And so that’s where you see me continue to be consistent on that front. And I get it. I mean — you know — the left likes to do that. So it’s a game they’re trying to bully you out of using certain terms. Well, they’ve used the term. They’ve been really clear about what they mean by it and been very aggressive with it, so I’m going to continue to say, “Well, that’s not going to happen.”
Savage: You said the “left” is being very divisive. I hear you saying the “left” is being very divisive —
Savage: — and is sowing this discontent and all these sorts of things. But it is a two-way street, right? Like it’s — we live in this country now where (…) we just get further and further apart. I mean, would you say — do you feel like you have ever, you know, sown —
Walters: No! No!
Savage: You’ve never sown divisiveness?
Walters: No! No!
Savage: Nothing you’ve ever said is divisive?
Walters: Hey, look, I love you, Tres, but look, here’s the deal: What they do is they push the craziest stuff — the stuff that 10 years ago, nobody would have advocated for. They push that into our schools. I go around the state — I go in all 77 counties, and I have Democrats grab me all the time (and say), “Hey, I’m not for school choice. The rest of your stuff — 100 percent — that doesn’t need to be in our schools. I can’t believe that they’re pushing this stuff in our schools.” So again, they do something crazy radical beyond what any American was even discussing 10 years ago. And we say no, no, no. Let’s get that out. Let’s focus back on academics like we used to do. Now let’s raise the bar. Let’s do better. But, no, no, no. Let’s get that out. I mean, we can all, really, right, 80 percent of us can agree there’s no place for that. Ten years ago, everybody would have said, “What? No, surely not.”
Savage: Sure. We don’t need blow-job books.
Walters: Sure, sure.
Savage: I mean, nobody’s saying that. But you’re —
Walters: Well, some people are.
Tucker Cross: There are some people saying that.
Savage: Nobody here. Nobody here is saying that.
Walters: Right, right, right. But you get what I’m saying is (…) I’m radical for saying what everyone believed 10 years ago should be the case in schools?
Savage: I’m saying you’re routinely and regularly calling people radical leftists —
Walters: Yeah. Yes!
Savage: — radicals, people who hate schools.
Walters: Don’t you think that would be accurate?
Savage: But that’s my question. I’m not saying whether it’s accurate or not. I’m saying other people view that as the divisive — as equally divisive on the other side of it as somebody who’s over there saying that you’re a Nazi, or you’re, uh — what would be the term I’m looking for?
Bennett Brinkman: Like a bigot?
Savage: Yeah. Right. Those sorts of things, right? Like, it — I mean, there’s name calling in both directions.
Savage: And I think you would admit you call out people you consider to be radicals. You know, “leftists.”
Walters: Yep. 100 percent.
Savage: Those things with sort of pejorative terminology, right? And so is that — how does that not — you’re like, “People are being so divisive over here.” But then, you know, you get on Twitter, and it’s the other side of the coin, right? Is it not?
Savage: No? OK —
Walters: No. It’s not. I mean, like I said, if somebody is pushing something that is radical, that most Oklahomans say, “Absolutely not.” And, frankly, the position of let’s get that out and focus on math, reading, science, history — that’s not a radical position. So being truthful and direct and honest is what I’m gonna be. I mean, I’m going to be very truthful. That’s a radical position. You are not in line with Oklahoma values. You are not — and y’all know this.
Democrats tell me that all the time: “Hey, I agree. I agree with you on that 100 percent.” I don’t even think it’s left or right. I don’t think it’s Republican or Democrat. I think it is very extreme. That again, and frankly, these are the type of tactics that they use in order to go, “Hey, there’s less than 10 percent of us out here who believe it. Hey, if we yell and scream at you and call you a racist or a bigot, you’ll back down, right? I mean, you’ll back down or you’ll find some middle ground with us.”
I don’t see a middle ground to pornographic material in school. I don’t see a middle ground to, like, how do we have this conversation about sexuality with a third grader? No, I just — I don’t think there is a middle ground. I think we get that out. I think the middle ground is frankly, math, science, history, reading, and emphasizing those things and finding what best practice is. And again, I think that those are things we could get to.
Bennett Brinkman: What would you say is the middle ground on history? Like math, I get it, right? Math is math.
Brinkman: We need to just teach math. But history — I think some could argue (history) is a fairly subjective course just in general. I mean, there’s lots of interpretations of history, and, you know, you can make an argument lots of different ways. So what is your view of how — of history in that way?
Walters: Yeah. You have to teach all of history, right? You’ve got to teach everything. But you do start with the premise that America has been an incredible force for good — that the principles that were put together in the Declaration (of Independence) and the Constitution have stood the test of time in creating a government that has allowed the people to rule and the people to rule based on these core principles, right?
So because of that, we have been able to do what no other country has been able to do. Now, have we made mistakes along the way? Absolutely. And you have to tell the story. The story of America is a people who based a country based on principle, and because of that, they’ve done great things. Then you also have to tell the story of when we’ve fallen short of those principles and why. And you’ve got to analyze it, like you said, you’ve got to take a look into everything with an eye that says, “OK, look, why were these decisions made? What’s cause and effect here,” right? And again, starting with the baseline of what makes some countries a force for good — what makes some countries make really great decisions that we see benefit their people, and why have other countries made decisions that haven’t? So to me — I mean, again, it’s a position that most Oklahomans would agree upon: We’re a great country. We are the greatest country. We’ve had more impact for the individual — the individual lives better in America — under American government — than any other country in the history of the world — and analyze why. But again, that means you also look at the times we’ve made mistakes, and you got to learn from them.
Savage: And remember when people didn’t, right?
Walters: Yeah. Sure. Yes.
Savage: I mean, you’ve taught the civil rights movement.
Savage: How did you broach that subject with — I assume you had a probably majority Caucasian class —
Walters: At McAlester.
Savage: At McAlester, right? And you taught it also at Millwood, right?
Walters: Also at Millwood. Yep.
Savage: So how did you approach those — how did you approach those topics? Did you approach them differently per class, or the same way?
Walters: No. No, very similar.
Savage: Give us just a — give us a taste.
Walters: Yeah. So I love — you know, one of my favorite stories is Frederick Douglass coming to the White House for Abraham Lincoln, talking with Lincoln and they’re having their back and forth. Because Douglass is frustrated. Douglass is frustrated that this country is inherently — it enshrined slavery. And Lincoln’s position was, “No it hasn’t.” The Declaration says that every man has these rights. Every man has these rights. Slavery should not exist under the Declaration of Independence. (…) We’ve got to live up to the Declaration. I mean, if we’re going to truly be a great country, we’ve got to live up to these ideals.
And so you look at that, and you look at civil rights, and you see Martin Luther King (Jr.) pointing back to the founding era. You see him pointing back to the Civil War, and go, “We’ve got to finish this.” And so it’s a wonderful story of Americans confronting mistakes that we’ve made and saying, “This has to be corrected. If we are truly going to live up to the ideals of the country, we have to correct it.” And again, you get to see people that were just — I mean, you get to see the full story. You get to see the heroes. You get to see the people who were not heroic during the time. You get to see the villains. You get to see everybody, and you get to see how things have worked out for us to continue to get closer to that idea. You know, Martin Luther King, Jr. is, I mean, I used to have my students do a deep dive on the Letter from Birmingham Jail. It was one of my favorite primary sources to really have them do a deep dive on because the theology behind it, too, is just impressive. I mean, he’s pulling up all the biblical examples of when is the government in line or unjust, and I think it’s a wonderful document. So that’s kind of my general —
Savage: Well, you may not have known it — my father taught history at OU for 35 years.
Walters: I did. Yes sir. Yep. Oh yeah.
Savage: So the word “indoctrination” in my house had a different meaning than it does now.
Walters: (Laughing) Right, right. Sure.
Savage: Last thing I’ve got for you. And we’ve asked — I’d asked this of your predecessor as well, and I never got too much of a robust answer beyond, “Well, the board has the ability to suspend certificates.” [Bennett] did a roundup piece the other day. We have a — and it’s not necessarily your fault, it’s across the county — we have an almost never-ending stream of stories about teachers, staff members, administrators, involved sexually — inappropriately — with students.
Savage: And it — I think we — well, we’ll write an article about them. Well, we’ll charge one of them. Well, we’ll revoke their certificate. And it doesn’t stop.
Savage: And so what do we need to do to really move the needle? And you may not know off the top of your head right now. I mean, we’re talking — OK, a book in the library — I get it. We don’t want to have the blow-job book in the library. On the other hand, we have an unending stream of people victimizing students sexually in schools. What do we need to do?
Walters: So I want to say a couple things. And that was a great piece you wrote. It was very comprehensive.
Brinkman: Appreciate it.
Walters: I want to say two things. The first thing I do want to point to is there is some connection here between — remember our other rule that we passed is about if you’re having conversations that are in really, really prescriptive, and really, really in the weeds about sex with an underage child, you need to — the parent needs to know about these conversations. So I’m gonna tell you — one of the things to flag immediately is we cannot be having these — allowing conversations to occur between an adult and child that is sexually graphic. Right there — that is red flag No. 1.
I mean, everyone who deals with the trauma of this goes, “Hey, it kind of starts down this road of, I don’t know why we were talking about this.” And so I do think that is a very important thing to stop and ensure that parents know with immediacy of when those conversations take place, that is not normal, it’s a red flag, it doesn’t need to happen. And No. 2 — yes, we have to do more to protect our kids. We are working from the agency perspective. We’ve worked closely with the OSBI on this as well, about — they do a great job (…) once an investigation starts moving, but we have got to do more to ensure that these things are not happening in our schools. I think there are local things that need to be done. We’re working at the agency level to figure out what can we do to ensure red flags are spotted — best practices in place. I’ve been working with some national partners on this to see — and I’ll be honest with you, everybody struggles with it.
I was just with 12 superintendents from around the country last week. I was talking about it, and they were like, “I wish we had this like — this is the thing to do.” And they don’t. (…) I mean, I’m telling you just to get the updates of, “Now this happened, this happened,” is just — it’s disgusting. It’s heartbreaking. You hate to see it. But I’m telling you, we are actively working on some things that I think can be very helpful there. But again, I will tell you, like I said, talking to these other state superintendents that are going, “I mean, I wish there was like — this is the best practice. And right now we don’t have it.” Luckily, I will say the OSBI has done a great job of — man, once an accusation is (made), they loop us in — we’re in communication. We reach out to the boards immediately and start talking about, “Has this person been — they’re away from kids, right? While all this is going on, have you fully removed them? Taken their access away?” Things like that. But again, it’s got to be more proactive than what it is.
Savage: Right. And I don’t know whether — and keep us posted, please. Because we really —
Walters: Absolutely. Yep.
Savage: Because if you’re rolling something out, we’d be really interested in that. And it’s not a partisan issue. It’s not anything like that. But I don’t know whether — you know, (I’m a) First Amendment guy, obviously. But I mean, is it something where you can have, contractually, no one — you know, teachers aren’t allowed to have Snapchat? I mean, I’m being facetious, but not really, right?
Walters: Yeah, yep.
Savage: Because the difference is 20 years ago —
Savage: — you didn’t have (an) ability to pipe right into students’ bedrooms, right?
Brinkman: Or use Google Docs, like in Deer Creek.
Walters: Yep. That’s right.
Cross: I think one methodology is building data to see what are the most common pathways toward this abuse, and see if we can pinpoint that better.
Cross: But that’s gonna take some time for us to look into that.
Savage: I appreciate your time. Anything else you want to say?