Many Oklahoma educators say they’re worried for what’s ahead after Oklahoma State Secretary of Education Ryan Walters defeated his opponent, Shawnee Public Schools Superintendent April Grace, in Monday night’s Republican primary runoff for State Superintendent.
At his victory party Tuesday night, Walters declared his win over Grace was a definitive statement by the people of Oklahoma about the direction they want to see public education head.
“Oklahomans have spoke loudly and clearly tonight,” Walters said. “Oklahomans repeat that they want a better education for their kids and they’re concerned that they’re not getting that.”
But it was a different set of emotions for Tulsa Classroom Teachers Association President Shawna Mott-Wright and her fellow teachers.
“There were lots of tears last night,” Mott-Wright said.
In the hours since the election results came in, Mott-Wright says she and other teachers’ advocates have gotten message after message from teachers.
“They all pretty much say verbatim, ‘If Walters and Stitt win, I’m done with education. I’m not gonna teach anymore, and I might even quit on the spot,’” she said.
In talking to FOX23 Wednesday, Mott-Wright didn’t hold back in her thoughts on Walters, who will face off against Democrat Jena Nelson in this November’s general election for State Superintendent.
“We cannot have someone at the helm who is basically going to murder public education,” Mott-Wright said.
Walters has been outspoken since putting his name in the hat to become state superintendent.
FOX23 has covered the public back and forth between Walters and Tulsa Public Schools Superintendent Dr. Deborah Gist. He has called for an audit of Tulsa Public Schools, as well as the State Department of Education.
“We’ve got to put money into the classroom,” Walters said Tuesday night. “We have added over a billion dollars in the last decade to the education budget, but administrators have focused it on growing their bureaucracy.”
Walters has closely aligned himself with Governor Kevin Stitt, who appointed him Secretary of Education.
“We’re going to continue to fight for Oklahoma conservative values,” Walters said.
In July, a federal audit was released criticizing how the Oklahoma Department of Education spent COVID relief dollars meant for education. It ordered the State Department of Education refund at least $650,000 to the federal government.
The audit said Secretary of Education Ryan Walters declined to a pre-approved purchase option on a software designed to distribute relief money to families for to purchase school-related items, resulting in families being able to buy non-educational items with the grant money.
Walters has been an outspoken proponent of banning the teaching of Critical Race Theory, and has put himself on the forefront of the movement to ban certain library books.
In July he called for TPS to remove two books from one of its libraries with what he described as “inappropriate sexual material” inside.
“We’ve got to get the indoctrination out of our schools,” Walters said. “Oklahoma schools are not gonna go woke. We have teachers who reach out to me every week saying ‘they’re sending me to these professional developments that have nothing to do with what I’m teaching.”
Mott-Wright says Tulsa Public Schools does not and never has taught Critical Race Theory, and she doesn’t know of any district in the state that does. But she says the ambiguity over what exactly HB 1775 prohibits has teachers working in fear.
“I get a lot of messages daily from teachers who are terrified to teach,” she said. “I don’t want us to have a Holocaust because children aren’t learning about it. I don’t want another Tulsa Race Massacre because some people’s feelings are hurt.”
Walters told FOX23 Monday night he’ll continue to fight to pass a previously voted down bill to provide parents with taxpayer funded vouchers to send kids to private schools.
“I will not rest until every child has school choice, until every parent can choose what’s best for their kid and their child’s education.” Walters said. “I am dedicated to that vision. I am dedicated to working with parents across the state so they have that freedom to choose.”
But Mott-Wright says educators worry that would deplete the already tight budgets of Oklahoma Public Schools even more.
“I’m a mom first. As a parent it is your prerogative to do whatever you want with your children, short of hurting them,” she said. “But public money should not be taken from public schools and then spent on non-public things,”
Last week, Walters and Governor Stitt sent out a press release announcing an executive order aimed at taking action against teachers unions.
“With the executive order, Oklahoma educators will be assured of the freedom to decide whether or not to participate in unions, rather than allowing union bosses to intimidate teachers into handing over part of their salaries,” the release said.
It attributed a quote specifically to Walters as well.
“This is another step in the right direction to focus our classrooms on parents, teachers and kids,” Walters said in the release. “We are cutting the liberal union chains off of our teachers.”
Mott-Wright said that did not sit well with teachers she’s spoken to.
“It you’re calling out ‘the union’… who do you think joins teachers’ unions,” she said.
Mott-Wright also disputed the claim that teachers in Oklahoma are forced to join unions in order to teach.
“Oklahomans are not this dumb,” she said. “It only takes a quick Google search to tell you Oklahoma became Right to Work in 2001. There is no forcing or coercing. Teachers choose to join the Union.”
Mott-wright says the teachers and elected leadership in the Tulsa Classroom Teachers Association come from all ideological backgrounds, but they’re all now preparing to support Walters’ democratic opponent Jena Nelson this November.
“Our association membership is half democrat, half republican,” she said. “All we care about is our kids in public education. We don’t care about party.”
It’s a challenge Walters tells FOX23 he’s ready to take on.
“Oklahomans are going to reject the democrats’ view for education,” Walters said. “The reality is, Oklahomans want more school choice, they want a rejection of left-wing indoctrination.”