Tuesday, September 6, 2022

OK: Ryan Walters Is Bad News For Public Education

Ryan Walters may be interested in something, but it sure doesn't seem to be public education. And yet, he is poised to be Oklahoma's top education honcho. His latest egregious harassment of an educator in order to score political points should be a disqualifier all by itself, but it's only the latest rung on his ladder.

Getting started

Ryan Walters graduated from Harding University ("Faith, Learning, Living"), a private Christian university in Arkansas that didn't accept Black students until 1963. Walters graduated in 2010 with a degree in history. 

He returned to his home town of McAlester in 2011 to teach high school history, where he did well enough to be named McAlester Public Schools Teacher of the Year in 2015 and draw a finalist spot for Oklahoma's TOY award in 2016.That put him in touch with folks at the state level. In 2018 he was appointed to the Oklahoma Community Service Commission, and the next year, newly elected Governor Kevin Stitt to the Commission for Educational Quality and Accountability.

In 2019 he gave up his teaching gig to serve as the executive director of Oklahoma Achieves, the state Chamber of Commerce initiative that pulled big bucks from, among others, the Walton Family Foundation. Oklahoma Achieves would soon transform itself into Every Kid Counts Oklahoma, a "new education reform organization" that wants to give everyone "access to quality education." EKCO has been especially reluctant to provide their required IRS disclosure forms, but The Oklahoman did pry some info loose; donors include the Waltons, Yes Every Kid (a Charles Koch operation).

Walters was offered the top job for EKCO in March of 2020. In May of 2020 he went to work. March of 2020 was also the month in which President Trump signed the CARES Act, which included the Governor's Emergency Education Relief Fund (GEER). Oklahoma started pulling its money out in July of 2020, feeding a chunk of that money into a voucher program that would be handled by newly created Bridge the Gap, a program funded by GEER money but operated by Every Kid Counts Oklahoma, who in turn would hire ClassWallet, the Florida-based ed voucher management company. Turns out they didn't even have to bid. 

But Walters thought he had a winner. In fact, he made an appearance at Jeb Bush's Edu-palooza in a presentation about how to launch a voucher program in just four weeks; the spot was sponsored by ClassWallet. It was such a hit that ClassWallet had him do it again for their Youtube channel in February of 2021.

Relief Fund Follies

That turned out to be a bit of a fiasco. Of the $18 million that Oklahoma collected, $10 mill went straight to vouchers and the rest went... somewhere. Oklahoma Watch ("Impact journalism in the public interest") and The Frontier did some digging and found that GEER funds were used to buy things like Christmas trees, gaming consoles, electric fireplaces, and outdoor grills. About $191,000 in federal relief funds were used to buy 548 TVs. In all, about a half a million was spent on non-school related goods.

Walters had been plenty enthusiastic about privatizing the operation of the voucher program:

“We didn’t have the government agency personnel with the background experience to do this and, quite frankly, we felt like there could be a more efficient way to do this outside our government agencies,” Walters said.

But ClassWallet has been clear that they have no intention of seeing the undercarriage of this particular bus.
“As a software contractor, ClassWallet had neither responsibility for, nor authority to exercise programmatic decision making with respect to the program or its associated federal funds and did not have responsibility for grant compliance,” company spokesman Henry Feintuch said in a statement.

As the Norman Transcript Editorial Board reports:

While $8 million of the money was meant to fund education resources for individual students, Walters did not set any limits or guidelines on how families could use the money — when ClassWallet asked for his thoughts on limitations, Walters gave “blanket approval” to any item a family wanted to purchase through approved vendors.

And while Governor Stitt wouldn't agree to an interview with Oklahoma Watch, his spokeswoman Carly Atchison did offer this in a written statement:

During the COVID pandemic, Governor Stitt had a duty to get federal relief funds to students and families in Oklahoma as quickly as possible and he accomplished just that.

Well, yes. He could also have dumped the money in piles in various school parking lots. That would have been quick, too.

And he wasn't all that successful. The program shut down a day early "after federal investigators and attorneys for the state discovered the company was operating on an expired contract with almost no government supervision" and Oklahoma returned $2.9 million unspent relief dollars to the feds. A federal audit gave the program lowest marks all across the board.

Failing upward for many employers

While some called for Walters to resign, he had other goals in mind. In September of 2020, Governor Stitt had announced that Walters had been appointed to fill the spot of Secretary of Education, while also declaring that the post would be an individual cabinet position. In his mid-thirties, Walters is the youngest to ever serve in the post. Now he wants to be the state superintendent of public instruction.

Through it all, there remains some question about who Walters actually works for. He's still listed as the executive director of EKCO-- a group that's devoted to agitating for privatizing education, so this is like hiring the head of a private bus company to head your public transportation system. Especially if the private company is paying him triple what the public system is paying. According to The Oklahoman (Clifton Adcock, Reese Gorman, and Jennifer Palmer of Oklahoma Watch and The Frontier have been all over this story), Walters was hired for a $100,000 salary, with a requirement that he had to be paid at least 20% higher than the second-highest paid employee. His original contract called for an option of a minimum $20K raise after the first year. Governor Stitt vetoed a bill that would have required cabinet members to disclose finances.

His salary of secretary of education from the state of Oklahoma is $40,000. The state superintendent makes $125,000, so at least the state would be on even footing with Walters' other employer. 

Strutting his right wing bona fides

It's hard to tell whether Walters is a died-in-the-right-wing-wool conservative or just an opportunist riding the prevailing political hot air (though things like this AP teaching video where he observes that Joseph McCarthy "exaggerated" offers a hint). Either way, he's been putting on quite a show. 

On his Twitter page, he likes to post videos of himself in his car objecting to liberal naughtiness. He cranks out op-eds, like this one arguing that "if our kids are taught to hate this country we will no longer be the country that God has so richly blessed." He contributed a piece to Fox News: "Listen up, teachers: stop going woke." He warned textbook publishers not to put any of that nasty CRT stuff in their books (and took flak for it). He "urged" a school district to prohibit students who were born "biological males" from using female bathrooms, claiming they had misinterpreted Title IX. As reported in the Stillwater News Press: "The US Department of Education’s rules, that your school board claims ordered this travesty, simply allowed school districts to choose their own path – and Stillwater has chosen poorly,” Walters wrote. “You have chosen radicals over your students, ideology over biology, and ‘wokeness’ over safety.” He has accused Tulsa schools of "pushing pornography."

His primary opponent April Grace tried to call him out on his own teaching, saying that his lesson about the psychology of racial bias actually violated Oklahoma's Anti-CRT law. It didn't stick. Walters joined Governor Stitt in backing a massive neo-voucher bill that ultimately failed; Grace took position that the bill had too few safeguards for the use of taxpayer funds (a position that, once upon a time, conservatives would have held). Walters beat her

His latest target

His victory apparently has encouraged him to go negative hard right. Witness his latest activity.

Summer Boismier was a teacher at Norman High School who drew flak for covering some books in her classroom with the message "Books the state doesn't want you to read." Apparently even worse, she posted the QR code for the Brooklyn Public Libraries new eCard for teens program, which allows teens from all over the country to check out books, no matter how repressive or restrictive state or local rules they may live under.

I saw this as an opportunity for my kids who were seeing their stories hidden to skirt that directive. Nowhere in my directives did it say we can't put a QR code on a wall.

But Oklahoma school districts are on edge since the state Board of Education downgraded two districts' accreditations for allegedly violating the law. 

The district's suspension was brief, but rather than report back to work, Boismier resigned. As the Washington Post reported

She recognized the school district was in a tight spot and said she placed most of the blame on Oklahoma Republicans for fomenting what she described as a growing culture of fear, confusion and uncertainty in schools.

Amid that climate, Boismier said, she doesn’t feel like she has a place in an Oklahoma classroom.

None of that was enough for Walters. The events surrounding Boismier attracted plenty of attention, and so, Candidate Walters popped up to put his two cents in via a letter that he posted on Twitter

In the letter, he called for Summer Boismier (he called her out by name) to have her teaching license revoked. "Ms. Boismier's providing access to banned and pornographic material is unacceptable." Let's not get into the question of what qualifies as pornography, but let's do look at some of the books now restricted in Oklahoma. It's quite a list, but it includes I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, Raisin in the Sun, Lord of the Flies, Brave New World, and The Outsiders. (Make special note of that last one. S. E. Hinton was born and lives in Oklahoma, and wrote that acclaimed novel in her teens, which means if she were a teen today, she would not be allowed to read the novel that she wrote herself). But I digress.

The letter also includes this line:

There is no place for a teacher with a liberal political agenda in the classroom.

Walters, who once wrote "I will continue to teach my students the United States is the greatest nation in the world," is at least honest in saying that it's the liberal view that must be prohibited. 

Meanwhile, after Walters tweeted out her name and his non-reality-based accusations, Boismier has endured a flood of vulgarity and death threats. 

“These teachers need to be taken out and shot,” “teachers like this should not only be fired but also should be swinging from a tree,” “If Summer tried this in Afghanistan, they’d cut out her tongue for starters,” are just a minuscule fraction of the threats pouring into Summer Boismier’s inbox.

Great game here. Draw a target on someone's back and just let your followers try to make her life hell. 

Bottom line

On top of all this, Walters wants to cut all federal money going to Oklahoma schools and replace that money (about $921 million) with--well, nothing. Just be be more efficient because "I want to move us away from federal funding and move us off of federal dollars." Because, after all, "the feds have no place in our education system." So much for support for school lunches and special ed. 

But it fits with the organizations that support him, like Americans for Prosperity, Oklahoma Conservative Political Action Committee, and the Oklahoma 2nd Amendment Association.

An Oklahoman who cares about public education should not vote for this guy. The state school superintendent has some hefty powers in Oklahoma, including control over staffing the department, along with oversight of teacher certification, curriculum standards, school accreditation, and regulatory compliance. The office has its hands on the $2.5 billion purse strings for school funding. The superintendent chairs the state board of education. And he needs to be able to work with many constituencies. Also, it would be nice if he weren't drawing a huge salary from a private organization focused on supplanting public schools.

We'll see what happens. Rural Oklahoma has already sent a message regarding how it feels about the idea of cutting funding to local schools so that folks operating private schools can make a buck--they are not in favor. Here's hoping they will also not be in favor of the guy who really likes the idea. Here's hoping that Ryan Walters can go back to doing his real job--and only his real job--soon.

P.S. Here's that QR code for the Brooklyn Banned Books program



  1. Christian Nazi. See them a lot down here. They are VERY dangerous.

  2. I'm pretty sure S. E. Hinton is still alive today.

    1. Yep. Meant to say if she were a teen today instead of decades ago.