state board of education rules
State Superintendent of Public Instruction Ryan Walters sits at the head of the State Board of Education meeting on Thursday, Dec. 21, 2023. (Bennett Brinkman)

In the State Board of Education’s final meeting of the year, State Superintendent of Public Instruction Ryan Walters announced proposals today for new rules regarding religion, diversity programs and drag performances on the same day a lawsuit over a gender-designation rule was filed against him.

Additionally, board members and Walters heard a monthly update from Tulsa Public Schools officials, approved a new charter school site and accepted the recommendations of a hearing officer for five different teaching certificate revocation hearings.

During his comments to the board at the beginning of the meeting, Walters suggested a plethora of new rules are needed by the State Department of Education, although none of them appeared on the agenda for Thursday’s meeting.

The three new rules that the board could vote on at a 2024 meeting broadly regard diversity, equity and inclusion programs, “religious freedom” and drag queens. Walters offered little specific language for the potential new rules but said he wanted to get alleged DEI programs out of schools — similar to a recent executive order signed by Gov. Kevin Stitt targeting colleges and universities — allow prayer in schools, and target teachers and administrators who perform in drag.

“The last rule that I wanted to bring to your attention (…) is the issue that we’ve seen in one district in particular and that is the use of drag queens as administrators being hired by a district,” Walters said of his third proposed rule. “We are proposing a rule that would update the teacher code of conduct to include sexual activity in public targeted towards kids to be inappropriate for those that work with our youngest students.”

When asked for more details about the potential new rules after the meeting, Walters told reporters that the rule proposals would be filed Friday, which would start the public comment period that typically precedes a board vote on new rules.

Thursday marked the first board meeting at which Walters has mentioned drag queens in schools since he announced an investigation Sept. 26 into Western Heights Public Schools, its superintendent and Shane Murnan, an elementary school principal who performs in drag during his off time.

Oklahoma State Department of Education spokesman Dan Isett said after the meeting that Murnan and Western Heights Public Schools, which is also believed to employ other men connected to drag performances, remain under investigation.

Murnan’s story as both a school administrator and drag performer made national headlines earlier this year. Murnan did not respond to a request for comment prior to publication of this article.

Tulsa Public Schools update

Tulsa Public Schools Superintendent Ebony Johnson and other district officials gave a monthly update to the board on progress the district is making toward goals set by board members and Walters at their August and November meetings.

In her presentation, Johnson emphasized her district’s communication and willingness to continue to work with OSDE and the state board. She also said the district plans to ask the TPS board to adopt the state board’s goals in the district’s strategic plan to ensure that the goals are the top priority.

“The goal is that we have alignment. The goal is that we have questions answered. The goal is that you know that we are being fully transparent not only with our academic expectations, but also the finances of Tulsa Public Schools,” Johnson told state board members.

In his presentation on the district’s academic progress, TPS executive director of information technology Sean Berkstresser announced an ambitious goal he said the district expects to meet.

“So, we are aiming by the end of May — and fully expect to achieve this — to have every single elementary and secondary teacher, principal and assistant principal trained in science-of-reading materials by the end of May. So again, that’s this school year,” Berkstresser said.

Walters has made promoting the “science of reading” — a broad area of study that focuses on teaching kids to read through methods backed by research in fields such as neuroscience and psychology — a top priority since he took office.

Tulsa Public Schools officials have given presentations to the board at each meeting since August, in accordance with the district’s accreditation status.

Thursday’s presentation was the first after state board members adopted two “board orders” setting new goals for TPS. Those goals include:

  • 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.

Thursday’s presentation was also the first for TPS Superintendent Ebony Johnson after the TPS board voted to remove the “interim” from her title and make her the district’s permanent leader.

Johnson emphasized that any potential school closures would be local decisions.

The Dec. 11 move provoked the ire of Walters, who had said the district needed to perform a national search to consider candidates nationwide. But Stacey Woolley, the district’s board president, said Walters’ and the state board’s ambitious goals for the district meant that TPS did not have time to conduct a national search and instead needed to find permanent leadership as soon as possible. Additionally, Woolley called Johnson “an extremely strong local candidate.”

After the board voted to make Johnson the district’s permanent superintendent, Walters repeated a vague threat he has often made toward the district since July.

“Despite months of assurances from TPS that it would take seriously the profoundly troubling issues in the district, the TPS board showed the exact opposite last night,” Walters said in a statement. “While I welcome a close partnership with Dr. Johnson moving forward, TPS is barreling toward drastic action being taken because the district has been unable to make the tough decisions necessary to turn the district around. The State Board of Education and I expect TPS to make decisions that prioritize student outcomes and not simply be a continued rubber stamp for the unions.”

While state board members were generally silent during Thursday’s presentation, some asked questions throughout the presentation, and board member Donald Burdick congratulated Johnson on her position becoming permanent.

Board members took no votes on TPS during the meeting.

Board continues two rule votes, approves school expansion

After the TPS update, board members declined to take action on two new administrative rules. At OSDE general counsel Bryan Cleveland’s recommendation, votes for both rules are set to be on the agenda for the board’s meeting in January.

The first was a rule complying with a new state law requiring students to fill out the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) in order to graduate.

The second rule would create new permanent rules concerning gender designation on student records.

The rule has already been in effect for nearly three months as an emergency. At their Oct. 26 meeting, board members used the emergency rule to deny record change requests from two districts.

One of the students in Moore Public Schools whose records were at issue during that meeting filed a lawsuit Thursday seeking to block the rule.

Filed against Walters and members of the state board in both their individual and official capacities, the suit alleges that Walters and the board violated the student’s equal protection rights by refusing to allow the district to change their gender marker on student records.

The plaintiff asks the court to enjoin the rule and asks for the court to award them a monetary judgement of at least $75,000 for the alleged deprivation of their rights.

“I’m not surprised that these radical left-wing groups continue to attack us, but I’ll never back down to a bunch of liberals trying to sue me over trying to protect our kids and protect our parents,” Walters told reporters after the meeting. “So, I’m going to continue to stand for whatever kind of lawsuit or what they throw at me there.”

Board members also heard a presentation from the Academy of Seminole asking for approval to expand to Okmulgee, which they eventually granted.

Located in Seminole, the Academy of Seminole is a charter school authorized by the State Board of Education that serves about 230 students.

The new site in Okmulgee is expected to serve about 180 pre-K through eighth grade students in its first year, which is expected to begin in the fall 2024 semester. The site will be called the Academy of Okmulgee.

At the end of Thursday’s meeting, board members discussed the suspended educator certificates of five teachers and eventually voted to accept the recommendations of an officer who conducted hearings in which none of the former teachers showed up.

Cleveland said the certificates had been suspended before Walters took office and were pending further action. Cleveland called the votes “revocation actions,” but board members declined to say what specific action they took during the meeting.

The five teachers were:

  • Heather Bycroft, who was convicted in 2022 in federal court of one count of sexual exploitation of a child and one count of possession of certain material involving the sexual exploitation of a minor;
  • Heather Porter, who plead guilty in 2022 in federal court to one count of conspiracy to possess with intent to distribute and to distribute anabolic steroids;
  • Joe Shaw, who was convicted in district court for the Choctaw Nation in 2021 for sexual battery and child sexual abuse;
  • Samuel Snyder, who pleaded guilty in 2020 in Cleveland County to 13 counts of child sexual abuse and two counts of forcible sodomy; and
  • Lester Young, who was charged in Pittsburg County District Court in 2021 with two counts of committing lewd or indecent acts to a child under 16.

Led by McBride, legislators subpoena Walters

science of reading
State Superintendent of Public Instruction Ryan Walters has made reading instruction a major aspect of his time in office. (Bennett Brinkman)

During Thursday’s meeting, Walters did not address a House of Representatives subpoena filed earlier this week asking his department to produce information on teacher recruitment, spending and other communication.

In the days leading up to Thursday’s meeting, the ever-simmering feud between Rep. Mark McBride (R-Moore) and Walters and his chief political adviser, Matt Langston, heated up once again when the legislator filed a subpoena to compel information from Walters and the State Department of Education.

McBride, who leads the House Appropriations and Budget Education Subcommittee, has clashed with Walters and Langston for more than a year, primarily over budget issues at the department. In April, McBride invited Walters to answer questions in front of what became the full House Appropriations and Budget Committee. That hour-long meeting quickly devolved into chaos when Walters used the occasion to call teacher unions a “terrorist organization.”

In the subpoena, which was also signed by House Speaker Charles McCall (R-Atoka) Common Education Chairwoman Rhonda Baker (R-Yukon), legislators asked Walters for information on his teacher recruitment program, money spent on software and communications between Walters and Langston.

After the meeting, Walters declined to address the subpoena specifically but said he has a “great relationship” with McCall and that they would continue to work together.

McBride had asked for the information from Walters and the department through more informal means before issuing the subpoena.

McBride said in a press release Dec. 8 that Langston had responded to his latest request for information with the phrase: “Fool me once, shame on you. Fool me twice, shame on me.”

In a press release sent Dec. 19, Langston fired back at McBride.

“Rep. McBride has repeatedly lied about Superintendent Walters and the State Department of Education. He has made up false narratives and has yet to show a serious effort to improve education in Oklahoma,” Langston said in a statement. “All Oklahomans should question his political and ideological stances. Rep. McBride actively works with Democrats and teachers’ unions to undermine Superintendent Walters’ and Oklahomans’ conservative policies.”

Walters seemed to reference the subpoena Dec. 20 in a video filmed from his car and posted to X, formerly known as Twitter, in which he referred to the legislator as Judas.

“Unfortunately, there are some in my own party, the Republican Party, who have come out and taken the teachers’ union’s 30 pieces of silver and go out and defend the teachers’ union fighting against parents,” Walters said in the video.