Tulsa Public Schools goals
Oklahoma State Superintendent of Public Instruction Ryan Walters, right, shakes hands with State Board of Education member Donald Burdick before a meeting on Thursday, Nov. 30, 2023. (Bennett Brinkman)

Tulsa Public Schools has new improvement goals and a new finance deadline following a meeting of the Oklahoma State Board of Education today, which also featured presentation of proposed changes to the state’s accreditation review process for school district that would add emphasis to student performance.

In addition to the TPS update and a discussion about the proposed statewide accreditation changes, board members also hired new lawyers and adopted new rules for alternative education.

Alex Gray, an investment professional and foreign policy expert who was appointed by Gov. Kevin Stitt on Oct. 20, did not attend Thursday’s meeting. Gray still has not been sworn onto the board because the timing of his appointment to fill Trent Smith’s expired term requires Senate confirmation in the spring before he can serve, according to Abegail Cave, Stitt’s communications director.

Board members adopted two “board orders” for TPS to set the new goals and deadline at State Superintendent of Public Instruction Ryan Walters’ and State Department of Education chief academic officer Todd Loftin’s recommendation. Both said that while leaders have made progress toward improving the issues identified by Walters during their review of TPS’ accreditation status, they felt the district needed more ambitious goals.

“I think [the board order] puts them on a path to success where we can know at the end of the year — these goals are met, Tulsa made some hard decisions and moved the district in the right direction,” Walters said during the meeting.

Unanimously adopted by members, the “board order” set three new goals for the district:

  • Having at least 50 percent of students score basic or above on the 2024 Oklahoma State Testing Program English Language Arts assessment or increasing the number of students scoring basic or above by five percentage points;
  • Training all teachers and school administrators in science-of-reading-based practices; and
  • Getting at least 12 of 18 Tulsa school sites off the More Rigorous Intervention list. Schools designated “MRI” are often considered “failing” schools.

Both TPS and Walters floated the possibility of closing or merging school sites to reduce the district’s number of failing schools. While Walters praised TPS Superintendent Ebony Johnson for being willing to make hard decisions, a spokesperson for the district released a statement afterward emphasizing the district’s commitment to local control.

“Any possible closure or consolidation of schools is a local decision and requires careful consideration and intentional engagement with our families, community and board,” TPS spokesman Luke Chitwood said. “Ultimately, the Tulsa Public Schools Board of Education considers any recommendation made and decides if any closures, consolidations, or changes in school format will be approved and implemented.”

Board members listened and asked questions during the nearly two-hour presentation from TPS and Oklahoma State Department of Education officials regarding academic outcome improvements and increased financial controls in the district over the past three months.

While board members seemed largely encouraged by TPS’ academic improvement, some voiced concerns about the district’s reading scores and finances.

“The fact that we are hoping to help TPS simply hit half (of students) at basic (ELA proficiency), which honestly is still insufficient (…), but we’re trying to move the needle and to let people know that that’s the focus of view of this agency — to try to at least help TPS and help these kids so that they can at least survive in society,” board member Donald Burdick said during the meeting. “Let’s get them to basic, and then let’s get them beyond, but that is the focus of this. And people get mad at [Walters] — I’m flabbergasted — I think this is phenomenal. I love this approach.”

Others seemed unsure of the approach. An organization of Tulsa community members supportive of the district released a statement after the meeting decrying the new goals.

“Today’s decision by the Oklahoma State Board of Education to adopt unrealistic goals for Tulsa Public Schools to meet by the end of this school year highlights their continued lack of understanding of the actual work of leading schools,” parent Ashley Daly said in the statement from Protect TPS. “No evidence has been provided indicating that any other district of similar size or circumstance has ever made such gains. Under the guise of high expectations, the Oklahoma State Board of Education and Ryan Walters have laid the groundwork for an eventual takeover that will serve as a model for further takeovers.”

Additionally, board members set a deadline of Dec. 8 for TPS and OSDE to agree on a date that officials with the department can go to TPS and view the district’s financial controls. Walters and OSDE general counsel Bryan Cleveland said TPS has not been responsive to requests to view the district’s financial processes.

“(The) academics team is there all the time. That’s been great. I’ll compliment them on that — open doors — they’ve been there,” Walters said of the communication between OSDE and TPS on academics. “(The) financial side of this has been a different story — on a struggle just to meet with [TPS].”

Walters eyes new accreditation standards

After their Tulsa Public Schools votes Thursday, board members adopted new rules for alternative education in the state. The new rules dealt with alternative education cooperative agreements and other standards for students in alternative programs.

Absent from the final version of the rules was a provision that would have required all alternative education programs to be in-person. That provision was removed from the final version of the rules after a public outcry from supporters of Insight School of Oklahoma, a virtual alternative education charter school.

During the meeting, Cleveland explained that the provision was first proposed after OSDE staff became concerned about lower graduation rates among virtual alternative education students. Additionally, Cleveland said some staff were also concerned that virtual alternative education decreases the amount of funds available to in-person alternative education programs.

“The growth of virtual alternative ed programs is actually increasing the identification of students as alternative ed, which the result means that since it’s the same pot of money, but there’s more kids having access to it, it means there’s a diminished per-kid amount. Where this starts being a real impact is in your rural programs,” Cleveland explained.

Ultimately, Cleveland said the department chose not to limit choices available to parents by proposing the in-person requirement rule.

Also during Thursday’s meeting, Walters presented what he called a “sweeping accreditation reform plan” tying academic performance closer to a district’s accreditation status. While board members could not vote on the new rules Thursday, Walters said he expects OSDE to put the official language of the rules out next week. After that, members of the public will have a set period in which they can submit comments to OSDE on the potential new rules.

Walters explained during the meeting that the proposed new accreditation standard would cite a district for an academic deficiency if more than 50 percent of its students perform below “basic” on state assessments in math or ELA.

After receiving a deficiency, districts would then be required to show a 5 percent increase in scores on state assessments the next year. If they are unable to do so, they would receive another deficiency.

“What we are doing is creating a very clear metric of 50 percent ‘basic’ in math and reading that every school should be able to attain,” Walters told reporters after the meeting. “We’ve given them the ability to show growth towards that goal. And the reality is when schools hit these deficiencies, the agency is going to make available multiple resources — this is our school support team, this is multiple grants that we’re going to make available for these districts as well.”

Board retains attorneys for Catholic charter school case

After a 15-minute executive session, board members voted to retain the Texas-based First Liberty Institute law firm to handle litigation in Attorney General Gentner Drummond’s petition to the Oklahoma Supreme Court to block the potential new St. Isidore of Seville Catholic Virtual School.

Drummond filed the writ of mandamus Oct. 20 asking the court to compel the Statewide Virtual Charter School Board to cancel its contract with the Catholic charter school. Walters and the department filed a motion Nov. 7 to intervene in the case, but that motion was denied.

Thursday’s contract with First Liberty Institute could indicate that the board may try to intervene in the case after the Supreme Court said Walters and the department could not.

“We’re gonna challenge that (denial). It’s outrageous that we wouldn’t be in the case,” Walters told reporters after the meeting. “When you look at accreditation, when you look at how funding actually gets to the school, it goes through the State Board of Education. It goes through our board — our agency has oversight as well. So, we are obviously a litigant of the case, and we’re absolutely not going to stand by and watch religious liberty be trampled. So, we’re going to continue to fight for individuals’ religious liberty, we’re going to fight to get back in the case, and we’re going to win.”

Asked about the hiring of the attorneys and others hired for other cases, Rep. Mark McBride (R-Moore), who chairs the House Appropriations and Budget Common Education Subcommittee, said he supports Drummond.

“I really, personally, don’t care for [hiring the law firm],” McBride told NonDoc after he exited an executive session of the University of Oklahoma Board of Regents in Norman. “There is a separation between church and state, and they want to continue to say that there isn’t.”

Also on Thursday, Walters hailed the new school choice tax credit program, which had been scheduled to begin accepting applications Friday before the Oklahoma Tax Commission announced that is was delaying the application’s start date.

“I’m really excited about tomorrow. I’m excited about families getting more choices and more options,” Walters said.

State Senate President Pro Tempore Greg Treat (R-OKC) also praised the program’s rollout in a statement Thursday.

“I continue to thank my Senate and House colleagues who made this come to fruition, and Gov. (Kevin) Stitt who signed it into law, while being a consistent advocate for this measure,” Treat said. “I also appreciate the Tax Commission for their extensive work in expediting this process and having everything ready to go by this Friday’s enrollment period. While I know there will be more questions and there may need to be legislative fixes in the future, school choice will be a wonderful thing for Oklahomans.”

Thursday evening, the Oklahoma Tax Commission said in a press release that it was delaying the application start date from Friday to Wednesday, Dec. 6 at 2:00 p.m owing to “some obstacles in ensuring a seamless rollout” of the program.

“The decision to delay the application start date was not made lightly,” OTC press liaison Emily Haxton said in the press release. “Despite being disappointed with the delay, we believe this adjustment is necessary to establish a ‘fair playing field’ for all taxpayers.”

(Update: This article was updated at 7:05 p.m. Thursday, Nov. 30, to add information about Alex Gray’s required Senate confirmation. It was updated again at 9:20 a.m. Friday, Dec. 1, to add information about the Oklahoma Tax Commission’s delay of the rollout of the Parental Choice Tax Credit Program.)