ryan walters federal grants
State Superintendent of Public Instruction Ryan Walters greets State Board of Education members before a meeting on Thursday, May 25, 2023. (Bennett Brinkman)

During a packed State Board of Education meeting Thursday, State Superintendent of Public Instruction Ryan Walters implied that teacher unions support pedophilia, admonished news media and accused a leading member of the Oklahoma Legislature of “intentionally” lying about the status of federal grant applications.

As he told media at the State Capitol on Wednesday, Walters said House Appropriations and Budget Education Subcommittee Chairman Mark McBride had been “intentionally” inaccurate when he told journalists the agency was leaving $272 million on the table by not pursuing Title I federal grants.

“He is a liar. Teachers unions are liars. They continue to do this to undermine this administration,” Walters said during Thursday’s meeting before turning and pointing at members of the press. “And the press willingly did that. You all willingly printed articles with headlines that were lies and you knew they were lies. (…) When you intentionally report lies, what you are doing is you are a true enemy of taxpayers and an enemy of every parent and child in the state of Oklahoma.”

On Tuesday, McBride (R-Moore) had added language into a budget bill that would prohibit OSDE from refusing to pursue grants it has received this fiscal year, which ends June 30. Walters called the provision “cute” on Twitter.

On Wednesday, McBride showed journalists documents he said gave him concern that OSDE was not submitting paperwork for all of the federal grants that the agency has sought previously. Walters conducted a brief press gaggle at the Capitol, saying McBride “has a lot of trouble with the truth.”

Walters provided media documents OSDE submitted for federal Individuals with Disabilities Education Act grant funding projected to bring the state $181.8 million. Walters provided a document dating three IDEA submissions as May 19, five days before Wednesday’s federal deadline.

McBride said Thursday that the information provided to him about the potential loss of $272 million came before OSDE submitted its IDEA documentation last Friday. McBride provided his own documents and spreadsheets that he said show “a very complicated situation.”

As a result of the IDEA submission by OSDE, McBride said he is now worried about roughly $90 million, which could include a combination of competitive grants and federal formula grants.

“I’m not wanting to call him names, I’m just saying there’s a problem,” McBride said. “With this many sources giving me information, there’s a problem somewhere. I don’t know where the problem is. There are people digging into it on the House side and the Senate side. More people are going to have to dig into this than just me.”

Questions about OSDE’s application for federal grants surfaced at a House committee hearing May 1 when House Speaker Charles McCall (R-Atoka) and House Appropriations and Budget Committee Vice Chairman Ryan Martinez (R-Edmond) pressed Walters about whether his agency had met application and reporting deadlines. Walters, who used the hearing to call teacher unions a “terrorist organization,” told lawmakers that OSDE “hasn’t missed a single deadline for any grant or any program.”

A week and a half later, the Tulsa World and The Oklahoman published allegations from a former OSDE grant writer named Terri Grissom, who said her employment at the agency ended April 18. Grissom said Walters’ administration had philosophically changed and slowed OSDE’s competitive grant application process to an extent “that work is not getting done at the agency.”

“We did miss deadline after deadline, there is no formal process in place to vet or write competitive grants, and the majority of the grants the agency has are currently in jeopardy of being out of compliance due to the fact that Ryan and his leadership team refuse to make decisions about grant work,” Grissom wrote in an email to McBride following the May 1 committee hearing.

Walters and his chief political advisor, Matt Langston, have denied Grissom’s claims.

“It is unfortunate that an employee has decided to lie about the agency and it’s activities. This is further evidence to support that [former Superintendent Joy Hofmeister] is an arsonist and let fires burn out of control in the SDE dumpster,” Langston tweeted May 12. “Employees running to the press because they lacked accountability.”

Diving into the weeds on ‘federal formula funds’

For many reasons, the intersection of federal and state education funding is extremely complicated, and a full picture of how the Walters administration has pursued and received federal funding can only be painted over time. Among other complicating factors, the state’s fiscal year runs from July 1 through June 30, while the federal fiscal year runs Oct. 1 through Sept. 30. State reports about the use of federal Title I funds — which are factored by basic, concentration, targeted and education finance incentive formulas — are due in May and June, in the federal government’s third quarter.

Comments from Walters and McBride on the subject have mostly been confined to back-and-forth allegations and a May 1 hearing agreement to meet over breakfast sausages. Publicly, they have not waded into the deep weeds of federal education funding processes and deadlines.

While OSDE does not “apply” for federal formula grants, the agency does have to submit paperwork required by the federal government to receive Title I funds — which provide assistance for schools with high numbers of students from low-income families — or IDEA monies, said Brent Bushey, executive director of the Oklahoma Public School Resource Center.

“Public schools rely on federal funding for personnel, professional development and lots of other programs to support students,” Bushey said. “We’re monitoring the discussion taking place and hopeful that a resolution is achieved. The interest of our resource center is ensuring that there is no interruption in funding so that schools can carry out their vital functions.”

Walters said his department has not fallen delinquent on any paperwork, and he tweeted a screenshot of an email from Ruth Ryder, who serves as deputy assistant secretary for the Office of Policy and Programs – Formula Grants in the Office of Elementary and Secondary Education at the U.S. Department of Education.

“We have no indication that any of your formula funds are in jeopardy,” Ryder said in the email dated Wednesday.

Walters pointed to the email as evidence that OSDE is not losing out on federal funding, although “formula funds” are only a portion of federal dollars available to states, albeit the largest chunk.

“We have not seen any issue with any report being late,” Walters said. “And the feds don’t even know where an issue would have happened.”

For the 2022 school year, data from OSDE’s Oklahoma Cost Accounting System indicate that the state received about $610.3 million in recurring federal formula funding. (Of that figure, $122.4 million represents child nutrition program funding from the U.S. Department of Agriculture. )

According to the 2022 school year data, Oklahoma received about $158.4 million in IDEA funds, about $24 million less than the “projected amount” Walters’ spreadsheet indicates for the 2023 school year. In the 2022 school year, another $234.4 million came from Every Student Succeeds Act money, but Oklahoma’s share of ESSA money was not included in the data provided by Walters on Wednesday, likely because final calculations reported to the federal government are made in the weeks after the school year ends each May.

Beyond “formula grants,” federal education grants considered “competitive” can cover topics like school security and personnel development, and they can come from federal agencies other than the U.S. Department of Education.

Grissom, the former OSDE employee who spoke publicly about her concerns, wrote in her email to McBride that her job was to write for “discretionary/competitive” grants and not formula grants.

“I am only writing this because, after listening to Ryan at the [House committee] hearing the other day, I couldn’t believe his blatant lies when he was responding to questions about grants in the agency and I wanted to set the record straight,” Grissom wrote.

Asked Thursday if he had a response to Walters calling him a liar, McBride said he had “better things to do than have this tit for tat on social media.”

“I’m busy trying to get money to the classroom and get teachers to Oklahoma,” McBride said.

Senate President Pro Tempore Greg Treat (R-OKC) said Thursday he will rely on Senate Education Committee Chairman Adam Pugh (R-Edmond) and others in his caucus to examine the federal grants question more deeply.

“We have to make sure that we ferret out the grants,” Treat said. “In the past, I’ve been upset at agencies that have sought grants that run for three or five years and then they get us on the hook and send out letters to their constituencies, ‘Hey, if the Legislature would just give us another $25 million, we could continue doing this.'”

Video implies teacher unions support pedophilia

While Walters initially used the State Board of Education meeting to address the grants issue, Thursday morning’s meeting lasted more than three hours and saw board members take numerous actions, including the creation of a make-up option for students who miss some required tests, approving reading sufficiency screening grants and Advanced Placement materials grants, and authorizing two rural school districts to hold school years with fewer than the required 165 days

Additionally, after a 30 minute executive session, members denied the complaint of a Pocola teacher in LeFlore County who said she was underpaid after the district increased the number of instructional days for its teachers without increasing their pay.

Similar to previous meetings led by Walters, many members of the public filled the room and the overflow area in the hallway to cheer or jeer comments from Walters and others.

Walters drew groans and sparked online outrage after he showed a five-minute video that he said was part of a “public awareness campaign” to “make sure that folks understand the positions of the teachers union.”

Walters declined to say how much it cost to produce the video, which is embedded into OSDE’s homepage and mainly features clips from a National Education Association convention.

Asked if Oklahoma teacher organizations have taken the positions implied in the video, Walters said they work in secret and that they need to “own their positions.”

Asked about Walters’ rhetoric, Treat said he had neither seen the video nor had a meeting with the Oklahoma Education Association all session. But he noted that Walters is one of his constituents and that they have discussed how the superintendent presents himself publicly.

“I’ve talked to him about his rhetoric and how it doesn’t line up with the way I would do things,” Treat said. “We have a great dialogue when he’s in my office on actual policy things, not things that will be real trend-setting on Twitter or anything else.”

Some educators who attended Thursday’s board meeting left after the video, walking to the State Capitol and telling journalists, lawmakers and anyone who would listen that Walters is engaging in dangerous theatrics.

“It is the worst video put out against educators I have ever seen in my 25 years of teaching,” Jami Cole said. “It is so bad. It is going to get someone hurt.”

Board members heard 18 people make public comments during that section of Thursday’s meeting. Only one person spoke about an item actually on the agenda.

The other 17 people mostly spoke either in support of or against Walters’ regularly-stated goals of removing “liberal indoctrination” from schools. Many quoted Bible passages as they made their arguments.

Erika Wright, founder of the Oklahoma Rural Schools Coalition, argued against the idea of state-funded religious schools.

“As a woman of faith, my favorite scripture is Micah 6:8, where we learn that God requires us to speak justice to the things that are important to our hearts, but to do so in kindness and with humility,” Wright told Walters. “[Teachers] are not terrorists, and I’m just so sad that you’re choosing to use these words about our teachers. Because Jesus teaches about loving God and loving our neighbors — all of our neighbors — as an inseparable mandate. If we’re only going to love the people we align with politically — the ones who see things exactly the way that we do — then we’re abandoning everything that Jesus came here to teach us.”

Immediately following, Joy Howell used her three minutes in front of the board to contradict Wright, referencing 2 Timothy 1:7.

“When I hear the comments that have been made earlier, they’re not accurate. They’re taken out of context. I know Mr. Walters, and he doesn’t speak rudely. He loves children. He loves parents. He loves teachers, and he was a teacher,” Howell said. “What we’re seeing in our schools — what we’re seeing on every level in our nation — is the long standing plan, patiently and methodically pursued, by those with the intent on overthrowing the U.S. government. And it starts at the very basic level, and that is to replace it with Communists, a communist dictatorship.”

(Correction: This article was updated at 8:05 a.m. Friday, May 26, to correct a reference to Title I federal funding.)