I don’t often write about Oklahoma. I generally figure we’ve got enough problems of our own without worrying about what’s going on south of our state’s border.
But the epic disaster that’s befallen their school system as its leader battles a “woke mob” — created entirely from political opportunism and his own fevered imagination — offers a perfect don’t-let-this-happen-to-us example for Kansas as we contemplate our education future.
Oklahoma’s superintendent of public instruction, Ryan Walters, is a far-right ideologue and a bully who’s opposed to public education in general and is wrecking the state’s school system from the inside out.
What can you say about a superintendent who tweets an image labeled “Student Safety Over Liberal Agenda,” featuring a teenage blonde white girl using a restroom sink while two girls of color lurk menacingly in the mirror?
Or one who publicly refers to teachers unions as “terrorist organizations” in legislative hearings?
“In our state, they’re pushing pornography in schools, they’re pushing this radical gender theory in our schools and they’re fighting school choice … I’m not gonna back down to this woke mob,” he said in an appearance on Fox News (where else?).
His weapons of choice are the Bible, which he wants to be taught in public schools as history, and “Gender Queer: A Memoir” and “Flamer,” LGBTQ-themed books that he demands be banned from the few Oklahoma high schools that ever had them on their library shelves.
Walters took his educational despotism to a whole new level last week.
At an Oklahoma Board of Education meeting, he unveiled a professionally produced propaganda video interspersing his own pronouncements on Fox with clips of union leaders and LGBTQ advocates far from Oklahoma, set to ominous background music. Goebbels would have been proud.
While he accuses teachers unions of back-room intimidation and a lack of transparency, he simultaneously escalated his own departmental tyranny to the KGB level with an email from one of his henchmen, threatening to immediately fire anyone “leaking” department documents about Walters’ anti-schools crusade.
“This will stop so let this email serve as its final warning for anyone that has a disagreement on Superintendent Walters’ beliefs to fight the liberal woke culture seeping into our schools, liberal indoctrination in the classrooms, and pushing pornography in schools,” the message said in part.
The email was a trap, sent out in different versions with minor variations in spacing and wording to catch those who were informing state authorities and the public on the activities of their boss who, bear in mind, is an elected official.
It was in equal parts reprehensible and effective. At least two people have been fired and have filed wrongful termination lawsuits, which they’ll probably win because Oklahoma has public records and whistleblower protection laws.
There’s a Kansas tie to all this, which you already may have guessed involves a big black building on the north side of Wichita.
Before he was elected superintendent, Walters served as Oklahoma Gov. Kevin Stitt’s education secretary.
At the same time, he was making about $120,000 a year as executive director of Every Kid Counts Oklahoma, a group advocating for tax dollars to be diverted to private school education, according to a joint investigation by nonprofit news organizations Oklahoma Watch and The Frontier.
The investigation found that Every Kid Counts Oklahoma received funding from foundations tied to Walmart heirs and Yes Every Kid, Inc., part of the network of political organizations founded and funded by Wichita billionaire Charles Koch.
About a month ago, Oklahoma passed a voucher plan to divert public money to private school tuition, similar to the one the Koch network’s been pushing in Kansas.
In Kansas, the peril to public education was averted when enough rural state senators found the backbone to stand up to Koch’s minions and vote it down, because it would have threatened their schools without providing any viable alternative.
But I do agree with Ryan Walters on one thing, when he said Oklahoma schools have been failing students. Over decades, they’ve obviously failed to educate students on how to see through dictatorial demagogues like him, and avoid voting them into public office.
Fix that and the rest of the problem solves itself.