October 30, 2022

John Thompson: Walters Is Bad News For Oklahoma Education

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John Thompson is located in Oklahoma and has a front row seat for the antics of Ryan Walters, who wants to be in charge of public education so he can trash it. Thompson watched the debate between the candidates for state superintendent, and he was amazed.

I have never seen anything like the debate between Oklahoma State Teacher of the Year Jena Nelson and Secretary of Education Ryan Walters for State Superintendent. The most important exchange, in my opinion, were their responses to the dramatic decline of NAEP test scores from 2019 to 2022. Ms. Nelson stressed the need, before and after Covid, for a multi-tiered system of student and teacher supports. The recovery, she said, will also require a return of teaching to state learning standards, not standardized tests.

Walters answered, “One of the worst things that happened to Oklahoma students was the election of Joy Hofmeister. She lied and said she was a Republican and now she’s a Democrat.” This resulted in confusion that “along with the way schools responded was what cost students’ on their test scores!?!?

Walters didn’t mention the Commissioner of the National Center for Education Statistics, Peggy Carr’s explanation:

There’s nothing in this [NAEP] data that tells us that there is a measurable difference in the performance between states and districts based solely on how long schools were closed.

Neither did Walters mention the Commonwealth Fund’s ranking of Oklahoma’s response to Covid as second to last in the nation.

Nelson focused on evidence and what is necessary to recover from Stitt’s and Walter’s mishandling of Covid.  At one point, however, Nelson replied that she wasn’t the one who tried to quarantine exposed students in Mustang Schools; this indefensible and dangerous failure was supported by Walters as the Christmas surge of 2020 approached, before vaccines were available, and as Oklahoma reported 21,405 new cases in a week.

By my count, eight times Walters exploded with his main argument, condemning the radical left, Joe Biden, Hofmeister and Nelson and, frequently, unions. He even charged them with “waging a left-wing ‘civil war’ in Oklahoma schools by permitting pornographic books, opposing the teaching of the U.S. Constitution and the Declaration of Independence, and pushing radical gender and racial ideals.”

One of Walters’ promises was to not talk to unions, and listening only to Oklahomans. And I lost track of the number of times he called Nelson a liar.

Finally, Nelson responded, “I’m sorry buddy, It’s not really in my nature to lie.”

After repeatedly praising HB 1775 for banning critical race theory, he pledged to implement the Hillsdale College Curriculum. Hillsdale, “which hired Justice Clarence Thomas’ wife, Ginni, “to help establish a full-time presence,” and allied itself with Florida Gov. DeSantis, and sought 50 charters in Tennessee  and, is funded in part by Betsy DeVos, pushes a rightwing ideology. Its president said, teachers “are trained in the dumbest parts of the dumbest colleges in the country.”

Nelson accurately called Hillsdale a “radical religious school.” She explained:

I believe in the Constitution, and I believe in American history. I believe in teaching all history. … We don’t need indoctrination of our teachers. The product that is coming out of Hillsdale is not anything to do with patriotism, but indoctrination.

Walters also claimed, falsely, that more than half of public-school dollars end up in administration. Supposedly, that is why “he also has been wary of accepting federal funds.” Before his Republican runoff election, Walters said he would reject federal funding in Oklahoma schools.”

 As Nondoc  reported, Walters had discussed the “phasing away” federal funds for schools. In the debate, however, he clarified that he wants to make sure all federal dollars for education meet “Oklahoma values,” but he said “nothing is off the table.” I would say his tone of voice indicates that Walters supposedly clarified – implying it is a fundamental part of his privatization campaign.

And, that brings us to Walters mishandling of funds and/or corruption. As the Tulsa World explained:

Walters’ role, as Gov. Kevin Stitt’s secretary of education [was] helping oversee $31 million intended to provide emergency pandemic relief for Oklahomans’ educational needs was also raised. In a summer audit report, the U.S. Department of Education’s Office of Inspector General was highly critical, saying ultimately, Oklahoma may be forced to repay about $653,000 that auditors said was misspent by families on noneducational items such as televisions, washers and dryers, air conditioners and Christmas trees.

The World further explains, “The report further recommends a 100% review of an additional $5.4 million spent through the ‘Bridge the Gap’ program and that the state repay the federal government for any additional unallowable purchases found.”

FYI, Jennifer Palmer reports that Gov. Stitt is now making a “surprising suggestion” in regard to improper payments that were made in the Digital Wallet scandal. Stitt says the legislature could sue families for misspending their $1,500 payments. However, Palmer notes, “But, Stitt’s appointed secretary of education, Ryan Walters, who is running for state superintendent, had given “blanket approval” for the families to buy anything on select vendor websites.

After listening to the nonstop insults hurled by a person with such a dubious record, Nelson responded:

Tonight I’ve been accused of a lot of different things — pushing pornography, which I never have,” she said. “I’ve also been accused of being some kind of left-wing indoctrinator along with many teachers across the state, and that’s not true either. I go into my classroom and I am in the presence of perpetual hope every single day, and it makes me want to go and fight harder for all of them so that they can have the same opportunity that I had.”

Near the end of the debate, Nelson said she had listened to former students who spoke highly of Walters. She “wanted to know whether Walters would “go back” to being the wonderful teacher some of his former students described him as to her on the campaign trail.”
And that gets back to Nelson’s empathy and efforts to bridge differences. The debate was just one more example where she showed the skills and warmth of an Oklahoma Teacher of the Year when politely countering the hate that is being hurled at her.


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