Tulsa Public Schools Under Fire. State Superintendent of Public Instruction Ryan Walters has thrust a typically low-profile office into the center of political firestorms. Walters has significantly impacted the Oklahoma education system in his first seven months on the job. Walters, a fiery Republican official, has leaned heavily into the cultural wars. He has taken on what he describes as “radical leftists,” indoctrinating students.
War for the Souls of Our Children
State Superintendent Walters has proclaimed “war for the souls of our children.” A war in which he has called a teachers union a “terrorist organization.” He has advocated for prayer in public schools and the hanging of the Ten Commandments in classrooms. According to the Rev. Shannon Fleck, executive director of the Oklahoma Faith Network, promoting one religion in public schools will exclude children of other faiths. “He’s doing all of these things to advance politically, and it’s unfortunate because it’s going to result in so much discrimination and pain,” Fleck said.
Despite being elected seven months ago, Walters has been battling with Tulsa Public Schools for years. On August 24, 2023, he put his foot down by threatening severe measures. This includes a state takeover of Tulsa Public Schools if the school district doesn’t make the necessary changes.
Walters’ Warning: “Do Not Test Me”
State Superintendent Ryan Walters states that Tulsa Public Schools have been “heading in the wrong direction.” Walters is a fiery Republican official who has leaned heavily into the cultural wars in his seven months in office. Although Oklahoma’s top school official has stated that he will “consider all options.” Still, he has warned Tulsa Public Schools to “do not test me.” Walters added, “I’m willing to do whatever it takes for these kids.”
Walters spent weeks attacking Tulsa Public Schools Superintendent Deborah Gist, claiming that the district she leads, with a majority of Black and Latino students and more than three-quarters economically disadvantaged, was “uniquely bad.” He chastised the district for its poor academic performance and accused it of financial mismanagement. One of his main demands was the removal of Gist.
Superintendent Gist celebrates Read Across America with elementary students in Tulsa, Oklahoma. PHOTO: COURTESY OF Tulsa Public Schools, District News.
Gist Resigns: “This District is My Home”
Gist served as the education commissioner in Rhode Island before returning to Tulsa to join Tulsa Public Schools in 2015. This is the same position Walters holds in Oklahoma. Gist, who grew up in Tulsa, announced on Tuesday evening that she would resign “with a broken heart” next month in hopes of averting Walters’ threatened takeover. Gist stated that she resigned because she believed it was the best thing she could do to ensure the local elected school board retained control of the district. She was also concerned that Walters would seek to revoke her educator’s license or the district’s accreditation without due process.
“This district is my home,” Gist said in an interview following the state board’s vote. “These are the schools that raised me, that made me — not just as an educator, but the person I am today. And nothing matters to me more than serving the students, and unlike Ryan Walters, I’m not willing to put my own interest above the needs of the children of Tulsa.”
The OSDE Board Votes
As Ryan Walters continues to push for change, dozens of parents, advocates, and educators spoke publicly at an Oklahoma Board of Education meeting on Thursday. Many people believe the OSDE’s rhetoric is making teachers nervous.
The board, which Walter chairs, voted to require more reports and plans from the state’s largest district, Tulsa, and to re-evaluate its accreditation in four months. Currently, Tulsa Public Schools’ accreditation status is “with deficiencies,” which means they must address specific issues before regaining accreditation. The board also voted to mandate that the district develop a professional development plan to train teachers in the “science of reading.” Additionally, the board voted on a corrective action plan for failing schools. The district must provide monthly in-person reports to the state board for the next four months.
Deborah Gist’s Reaction
In an interview following Thursday’s vote, Gist expressed relief that the board preserved the district’s accreditation. Still, she expressed concern that Walters’ threat of drastic action remains. “This is about Ryan Walters using Tulsa and me as a political football and furthering his personal and political agenda,” Gist added.
Gist Supporters React
Following the vote, some of those who spoke during the public comment period expressed gratitude to the state board for “stepping up and delivering consequences.” Still, many defended Gist and criticized Walters’ approach.
“I watched a lifelong Tulsan and a lifelong educator fall on her sword to save our district from what would surely be a bungled and disastrous takeover by someone who shows zero interest in our kids other than as a pawn for his political career,” Ryan Daly, a Tulsa father, said. “That is strong leadership,” he said directly to Walters. “You are not a strong leader.”
Carmon Drummond, a Tulsa parent who identifies as a conservative Republican, also addressed Walters. “You need to stop talking, and you need to start listening,” she advised. “If you want to come to Tulsa and you want to have town meetings with parents, and you want to learn about the troubles and challenges that TPS has, I’m sure lots of people will show up and talk about it. There are problems at TPS, but a state takeover violates the basic constitutional principle of our government, which is local control.”
“Parents are terrified that their child’s school is going to be the target of the next extremist who actually believes the lies that are spread,” said one parent during public comment at the August 24, 2023, Tulsa Public School board meeting.
As an education advocate, Erika Wright said, “Just because you’re not a Tulsan doesn’t mean this doesn’t impact you.”
Walters Supporters React
Janice Danforth is the Tulsa chapter leader of Moms of Liberty, a conservative activist group. Danforth said she was glad Walters held Gist accountable for a “lack of leadership.”
“We’re at a place in time where boldness matters,” Danforth said. She added that she has spoken with Walters several times about her concerns about school library books. “And he’s being bold, and he’s fighting for what he believes is right. And I stand by him on that, because I feel the same.”
The Latest News
Walters met with Dr. Ebony Johnson, a career TPS educator, on Friday afternoon. Dr. Johnson will take over as interim superintendent after Deborah Gist leaves mid-September.
DOWNLOAD THE URBT NEWS APP Tulsa Public Schools Under Fire