Ryan Walters talks to Congress
State Superintendent of Public Instruction Ryan Walters testified in front of a U.S. House subcommittee regarding the influence of China in school districts during a hearing held Tuesday, Sep. 19, 2023. (Screenshot)

One day after a former Tulsa Public Schools employee was charged with conspiracy to commit wire fraud, Oklahoma State Superintendent of Public Instruction Ryan Walters testified in front of a committee in Congress and alleged that TPS has a connection to the Chinese Communist Party, something the district has denied.

On Monday, former Tulsa Public Schools chief talent and equity officer Devin Fletcher was charged in U.S. District Court for the Northern District of Oklahoma with conspiracy to commit wire fraud depriving TPS of $603,992. Today, Walters told members of Congress there should be federal laws prohibiting school districts from taking money from “hostile foreign governments” and from entering into “data sharing agreements with hostile foreign governments.”

Walters has used both instances — Fletcher’s alleged embezzlement and TPS’ connection to the Chinese government — as reason to threaten a takeover of Oklahoma’s largest brick-and-mortar school district.

“Through a series of CCP-affiliated nonprofits, that school district maintains an active connection with the CCP through a program called the Confucius Classrooms, even after the federal government crackdown on similar programs in 2020,” Walters told members of the U.S. House Subcommittee on Early Childhood, Elementary and Secondary Education. “The role that the CCP plays in some of our K-12 schools is an issue that goes far beyond the realm of education and has national security implications. Through programs such as Confucius Classrooms, we are allowing a hostile, foreign, anti-democratic government a foothold into our schools.”

None of Oklahoma’s congressional delegation sits on the subcommittee or its larger Committee on Education and the Workforce.

Walters found a welcome audience in the subcommittee’s Republican majority, members of which asked Walters and others testifying questions regarding the scope of China’s influence in American education and how to stop it over the hearing’s nearly two-hour duration.

“Over 500 K-12 schools across the United States have allowed the CCP to establish itself in their halls under the guise of Confucius Classrooms, but when you pull back the curtain on these cultural exchange centers, you find a CCP-backed agenda that undermines the principals upon which our education system is built,” said Subcommittee Chairman Aaron Bean (R-FL4) in his opening statement. “The risks posed by the proliferation of communist Confucius Classrooms is threefold: threatening America’s national, geopolitical and academic interests.”

‘This is an issue of national security’

In his remarks, Walters said the federal government should ban districts from taking money from “hostile foreign governments.” Additionally, Walters also asked for a law prohibiting schools “from entering into data-sharing agreements with hostile foreign governments.”

As Walters asked for the legislation, some committee members seemed unsure about the role of the federal government in policing local school districts. Rep. Burgess Owens (R-UT4) asked Walters to expand on his request “without violating the principles of federalism.”

“First of all, this is an issue of national security,” Walters answered. “When you look at the indoctrination going on in our classrooms from several different perspectives, this is one of the most heinous. Frankly, when you look at this, this is a failure of Nancy Pelosi’s leadership when this was brought to her attention. The Biden administration — this failure to secure our schools and education system is traitorous.”

Tuesday’s hearing was not the first time Congress has attempted to address the influence of China in school districts.

In 2019, the Senate released a 96-page report from the Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations within the Committee on Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs detailing the influence of Confucius Institutes and Classrooms in the U.S.

Such organizations provide professional development and assistance for schools and universities that provide Chinese-language classes for students. While the organizations are affiliated with the Chinese government, scrutiny from Congress over the years has led them to reorganize and distance themselves from being a direct arm of the government, although they are still funded primarily by China.

While Walters has repeatedly said Tulsa Public Schools is taking money from China, reporting from Lenzy Krehbiel-Burton of the Tulsa World indicates TPS contracted with a nonprofit based in Texas to allow its Chinese language teacher to use the nonprofit’s professional development resources provided by Confucius Classrooms.

Walters attempted to use the connection to justify his criticism of TPS as the State Board of Education considered the district’s accreditation status last month. While he declined to discuss the matter in the meeting where members voted on TPS’ accreditation, he posted a video filmed from his car and addressed attendees of a Moms for Liberty meeting about it.

In those remarks, Walters said TPS is taking money from China, but a district official told the Tulsa World the district is not taking money but, instead, is paying its own money for professional development and other resources.

“Those resources and the teacher’s salary are paid for by the district,” said Paula Shannon, deputy superintendent of TPS, who told the Tulsa World that about 30 Booker T. Washington students took Chinese as an elective in the 2022-2023 school year. “We’re not buying services from the Chinese government.”

‘A good step toward righting the ship’

Another issue discussed regularly by Walters involves the alleged mishandling of finances within TPS, which is currently being audited by the state. Walters has repeatedly emphasized the need for TPS to improve internal financial controls owing to Fletcher’s alleged embezzlement, although Walters and TPS officials disagree on the exact amount that was mishandled.

To that end, Walters on Tuesday seemed to celebrate charges being filed against former TPS senior administrator Devin Fletcher, who is accused of conspiracy to commit wire fraud regarding a scheme wherein federal prosecutors allege that Fletcher fraudulently obtained more than $600,000.

“This is a good step toward righting the ship at Tulsa Public Schools,” Walters said in a statement Tuesday. “TPS must ensure there are internal financial controls in place to prevent this abuse of the public trust.”

A statement emailed anonymously from a TPS “news” account said the district has been working to improve its financial controls as a result of the incident.

“Our commitment to the students, families, and community we serve remains unwavering,” the statement said. “While this incident is deeply troubling, it does not define the hardworking and dedicated educators, staff, and administrators who make up our school district. District leadership continues to cooperate with law enforcement and the state auditor’s office to ensure that justice is served. In addition, district teams began the work of strengthening internal financial controls over a year ago and continue to build upon those improvements to safeguard our district’s finances.”

In the information filing (embedded below) that oulines the criminal charge against Fletcher, U.S. Attorney Clinton Johnson and Assistant U.S. Attorney David Whipple said Fletcher used his position to fake invoices and other documents that caused the loss of hundreds of thousands of dollars for the district. The attorneys said Fletcher received help from an unnamed “Conspirator A.”

Meanwhile, State Auditor and Inspector Cindy Byrd is still performing an investigative audit into the district’s finances.

Gov. Kevin Stitt requested the audit in July 2022 after TPS learned of “contract irregularities” and self-reported them to the Tulsa County District Attorney’s Office. Fletcher resigned around the same time.

(Update: This article was updated at 6:51 p.m. to correct the spelling of a Tulsa World reporter’s name.)

U.S. Attorney’s Office information on Devin Fletcher

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