state board of education charter school
State Board of Education members prepare for a meeting Thursday, April 25, 2024. (Bennett Brinkman)

In a short but eventful meeting that saw a woman being led out in handcuffs Thursday, State Board of Education members approved a new charter school for south Oklahoma City.

Additionally, State Superintendent of Public Instruction Ryan Walters discussed his recent directive to local superintendents asking them to ignore new federal Title IX rules that strengthen protections for sexual harassment and assault victims and for members of the LGBTQ community.

“President (Joe) Biden deciding to rewrite Title IX is one of most radical and illegal moves we’ve ever seen from the federal government,” Walters told board members during the meeting. “It’s an attack on our states. It’s an attack on our families, and it’s an attack on our young women and girls. We will not stand for this in Oklahoma. We are pursuing all actions to oppose this illegal and unconstitutional move by the Biden administration.”

In his address to the board, Walters repeated comments he has made often this week on social media.

“We are pursuing a legal response. We have already sent letters to the federal Department of Education — they know we will not comply,” Walters told reporters after the meeting. “They know we’re pursuing a lawsuit against them, then we’re working with other states to pursue a lawsuit against them.”

Walters declined to acknowledge any potential difficulties in pursuing litigation against the federal government given an apparent lack of legal staff in his agency. OSDE is currently contracting with outside counsel for representation, but Walters said the department also has lawyers on staff while it searches for new general counsel.

“We do have some attorneys on staff, but, look, everything has gone very well from our standpoint of being able to get an interim (general counsel) in so we could continue with the search,” Walters said. “We’ve had no issues over here.”

The Title IX rules, which were released April 19, strengthen protections against discrimination from LGBTQ+ individuals that had largely been dismantled under the administration of former President Donald Trump. While Walters’ specific criticisms have been somewhat unclear, he has said the new rules could run afoul of the state’s laws regarding gendered bathrooms in school. The new Title IX rules were originally proposed in 2022 and featured potential guidelines regarding transgender participation in sports, but those components did not make it into the final rules. Still, the proposals prompted Walters to try to fight against them early in his tenure as superintendent.

One year ago, Walters called a special meeting of the State Board of Education on April 12, 2023, to request a report from all school districts in the state regarding athletics programs to use as evidence in comments to the federal government protesting the proposed new rules.

“What we’ve seen now is the federal government’s obsession with controlling our schools and pushing a radical agenda,” Walters said at the time. “So what we’re doing is we’re going back to ensuring that common sense prevails, and that we continue to protect girls sports.”

But in their permanent form, the new rules do not address transgender athletes or athletic programs. Rather, they prohibit discrimination on the basis of gender identity and sexual orientation in all elementary, secondary and higher education institutions that receive federal funding.

Walters is not the only state education leader to advocate for ignoring the rules. Louisiana’s top education official also told districts not to follow the rules, and Florida’s department of education vowed to fight the rules.

Senate President Pro Tempore Greg Treat (R-OKC) said Thursday that Oklahoma needs to be cautious when it comes to responding to federal funding requirements. However, he said he was not particularly familiar with the new rules or Walters’ letter.

“I have not seen the letter and how strongly worded (it was),” Treat said. “Obviously if there are federal law and rules and regulations in order to receive certain monies and treatment, we need to make sure we are very careful how we deal with that.”

State Board of Education approves charter school with praise

After declining to take action in March, board members approved an application for charter sponsorship from the Proud to Partner Leadership Academy.

Todd Loftin, OSDE’s chief academic officer, said the department was comfortable recommending that the board approve the school.

“Our staff has reviewed their application and some other documents — we’ve met with them — and we think that it meets the requirements under the statute. We do still have some concerns about the financial plan that was submitted,” Loftin said.

Board members approved sponsorship of the school, subject to contract stipulations addressing the financial concerns.

The new charter school originally applied for sponsorship from Putnam City Public Schools but was denied, opening the option for the school to seek sponsorship from the State Board of Education.

The school will open for the 2024-2025 school year and serve primarily high school students in the Putnam City district in west Oklahoma City.

“Congratulations. We’re excited to hear about the kickoff of the school and excited for the students,” Walters told the school leaders after the vote.

The new school’s leadership also celebrated the decision.

“Thank you to Superintendent Walters, to you as the board, to the OSDE,” founder Dawn Bowles said after the vote. “I’m excited about the recommendation, obviously, and more excited to represent Oklahoma education. One of my mottos [is] ‘We’re preparing for greater.’ But I will say now that greater is here.”

Two other charter schools that were denied by Oklahoma City Public Schools and subsequently applied for sponsorship from the State Board of Education last month “withdrew their applications,” Walters said.

Tulsa Public Schools receives praise

Oklahoma education roundup
Located at 624 E. Oklahoma Place, Carver Middle School is a part of the Tulsa Public Schools district. (Bennett Brinkman)

Board members also heard their monthly update from Tulsa Public Schools officials during the meeting Thursday.

TPS Superintendent Ebony Johnson and analytics executive director Sean Berkstresser informed board members about their progress toward improving struggling TPS school sites and helping students at those sites.

“In summary, we are looking forward to the impact of collective work,” Johnson said. “Some of these changes are difficult. Change is hard.”

As a condition of TPS’ accreditation “with deficiencies,” the district has been giving monthly progress reports to the State Board of Education on various goals set for the district by Walters and the board members.

In recent months, Walters has become complimentary of TPS and its improvement, praising the district at board meetings and holding multiple press conferences in the district to tout its success.

At Thursday’s meeting, Walters continued the pattern, praising Tulsa’s turnaround as a model for the country.

“Could not be more excited about what they’re doing,” Walters said.

Other board members also lauded the district for its success in addressing chronic absenteeism and other issues.

Koons’ wife emergency certified, altercation rounds out meeting

Board members took little other action at Thursday’s meeting besides other routine matters.

One of those routine items was approving applications for emergency teacher certifications. Among the applications was Shelley Koons, who applied for an emergency counselor certification at Ringling Public Schools.

Koons is the wife of Phil Koons, a coach in the district who is facing trial for alleged harassment of his players.

At the end of Thursday’s meeting, during the public comments section, former OKC City Council candidate Audra Beasley was led out of the meeting in handcuffs after she yelled at Walters and board members.

Beasley is an aggressive advocate for all public restrooms to contain adult changing tables, an accommodation she has requested for her disabled son in a variety of venues. She routinely posts criticisms of officials on social media, including calls for Treat to resign from office.

During her time at the podium, Beasley hurled insults at Walters and board members and continued to do so as her time expired and her son took the podium for his time to speak. She also brought an adult changing table to the meeting and slammed it down on the table at which board members were seated.

“You are downright embarrassing, and you wear the same damn clothes all the time, too. Why is that?” Beasley said to Walters. “I hope the attorney general wipes you up.”

After her time to make comments had expired, Beasley continued to yell over Walters’ attempts to move the meeting along.

“Y’all need to get rid of him,” Beasley shouted. “You are disgusting. You’re so rude. You are a bigot and bully.”

State troopers ultimately placed her in handcuffs and led her out of the room.

“You’re violating my son’s federal rights in this building,” Beasley yelled. “Do I have temporary accommodations in this building for my kid? (…) Y’all are arresting me in front of my children because this man out here is a bigot and a bully picking on trans kids, picking on disabled kids, picking on my kids! My kids are crying, Ryan Walters!”

Walters declined to comment on the situation after the meeting, saying it was a matter for the Oklahoma Highway Patrol.