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Ryan Walters begins to shape education agency around his political ideology



State schools Superintendent Ryan Walters’ new office inside the Oliver Hodge Building includes a stately desk, an inviting lounge area with plush couches, and an expansive conference table to the side.

But hours after taking his oath of office earlier this month, Walters was not at his desk or the head of his conference table.

Instead, he was sitting in the front seat of his Honda CR-V recording a selfie-style video denouncing two former teachers he claimed had spread “liberal indoctrination” in their classrooms by teaching about systemic racism and openly welcoming LGBTQ students.

“We will not allow the indoctrination of Oklahoma students here in the state of Oklahoma,” Walters said while looking into his phone’s camera.

Rep. Forrest Bennett, right, asks state schools Superintendent Ryan Walters a question on the floor during a hearing Tuesday at the state Capitol.

Walters’ rhetoric was reminiscent of his campaign, when he regularly complained of students being exposed to “woke” teachers and libraries peddling pornography.

But Walters, a Republican who won his election in November, is now the state’s top public school official, has access to a large staff, and can shape policy within the Oklahoma State Department of Education.

“I have instructed my staff to immediately begin the processes to hold the two teachers accountable who actively violated state law, admitted to violating state law, to indoctrinate our kids,” Walters said in his car seat video, which he tweeted with the title “priorities.”

Less than a month into office, Walters has launched investigations into educators, instructed staff to compile a list of “inappropriate” materials being used in schools, and demanded an accounting of all funds spent by public universities to teach diversity and equity, using his new administrative powers to enforce the political ideology he promoted during his campaign.

Walters’ supporters see a man looking to shake up a school system in need of an overhaul.

But critics say Walters is alienating educators while showing little interest in the complex policies that traditionally consume the state’s education agency.

“I hear his (supporters) say he is done campaigning and will start governing, but I’m not convinced that he is,” said Rep. John Waldron, a Tulsa Democrat and former teacher.

State schools Superintendent Ryan Walters discusses the Oklahoma State Department of Education budget at the House Appropriations and Budget Education committee at the state Capitol.

“I think it’s a fair question to ask whether we have a state superintendent for education or a continual candidate.”

But criticism hasn’t come from just Democrats.

More:Ryan Walters gives governing vision, drawing ire, sharp words from Democrats

During a House budget hearing this past week, Rep. Toni Hasenbeck, R-Elgin, told Walters she had recently met with a group of district superintendents who have “a tremendous amount of worry about what the next four years are going to bring based on (your) campaign rhetoric.”

Walters told her educators have nothing to fear because he was returning the “focus to academics, not indoctrination.”

Ryan Walters imposes spending-hiring ‘freeze’

State schools Superintendent Ryan Walters is shown Tuesday at a House Appropriations and Budget Education committee meeting.

While Walters has said his office will spend time and resources ridding classrooms of liberal politics, it’s unclear what that effort will look like.

Two weeks after Walters asked his staff to investigate two former teachers, the state Education Department has not provided The Oklahoman with any documentation related to such an order.

More:Ryan Walters says he plans to ‘hold folks accountable’ at the Education Department

Last week, Walters issued a letter demanding the Oklahoma State Regents for Higher Education provide him with an accounting of all money and materials used to teach diversity and equity. But it’s not clear what power the state superintendent has over the state’s university system, and the state Education Department did not respond to questions about that authority.

In addition to ordering investigations, Walters also has announced a hiring and spending “freeze” at the agency.

Asked to elaborate on what that “freeze” looked like, Walters said he was the lone decision maker.

“The first thing I did was make sure we are not hiring until it has been reviewed by me to make sure we are hiring folks in line with the goals for our kids,” Walters said.

“We are also ensuring that all contracts, everything moving forward, any kind of expenditure is going through me to ensure fidelity of taxpayer dollars. We (used to see) money flow through that department incredibly fast and that has stopped with my administration.”

More:Oklahoma’s incoming AG says pandemic funds will be investigated

‘I think parents wanted change’

Some have compared Walters to former state schools Superintendent Janet Barresi, whose one term a decade ago drew criticism from many within the education community.

Barresi was a reform-minded superintendent who pushed conservative education policies, including a school-based A through F report card system and tougher student promotion requirements tied to reading proficiency.

Walters has spoken very little about specific policy goals, instead saying he wants the nation’s “most aggressive” reading program and sweeping school choice, which includes using tax dollars for private school tuition.

At his first state Board of Education meeting, Walters presented a budget that carved out $100 million for a reading program and performance-based teacher pay raises.

While Walters may draw headlines for tweeting about “woke Santas” and drag queen shows, Rep. Sherrie Conley, R-Newcastle, believes it’s his willingness to challenge the status quo that led to his election.

Many parents are frustrated with the state’s public school system, Conley said, and Walters was frustrated, too.

“I think parents wanted change and have been looking for answers even if they really weren’t sure what those answers are,” Conley told The Oklahoman.

“(Walters) was willing to bring change and do things differently, that sounded appealing, and I think we are seeing how he wants to change things.”

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