Current events show need to revisit education governance (Capitol Update)

State government was dominated these past several weeks by State Superintendent of Public Instruction Ryan Walters and the State Department of Education. As the newly elected state superintendent, Walters continued a war of words with Tulsa Public Schools and its superintendent, Dr. Deborah Gist, that was initiated by Gov. Kevin Stitt several years ago. 

The State Board of Education, at Walters’ request, withheld TPS’ accreditation at its July meeting and was to make its accreditation decision for the 2023-2024 school year this past Thursday. In the meantime, threats, accusations, counteraccusations, and responses filled press releases, airwaves, social media, and newsprint. Finally, after Dr. Gist announced her resignation to smooth approval of the district’s accreditation, the State Board of Education acted last Thursday to grant the TPS accreditation.

How did we get to this place? In a conservative state with a populist history like Oklahoma, many citizens are likely surprised to learn that the state has authority to “take over” a school district from its locally elected school board. It makes sense that state government, which is required by Article 13, Section 1 of the Oklahoma Constitution to “establish and maintain a system of free public schools wherein all the children of the State may be educated” would have ultimate control of the education system. 

In fact, Article 13, Section 5 provides that “The supervision of instruction in the public schools shall be vested in a Board of Education, whose powers and duties shall be prescribed by law. The Superintendent of Public Instruction shall be President of the Board. Until otherwise provided by law, the Governor, Secretary of State, and Attorney General shall be ex-officio members, and with the Superintendent, compose said Board of Education.” 

Schools are primarily funded by the state. It varies from year to year and district to district, but generally about 62 percent of school funding comes from state government. The rest comes from local property taxes (28 percent) and federal funds (10 percent).

From these rather sparse constitutional provisions, the legislature has developed a complex set of statutes followed by regulations promulgated by the State Department of Education that make up a school code governing schools in the state. The original State Board of Education was replaced by a seven-member Board appointed by the governor and confirmed by the State Senate. 

In keeping with our heritage of aversion to the concentration of power, the board, in addition to the superintendent, consisted of six members appointed for six-year terms “staggered so that only one term expires each year.” This kept any governor from gaining immediate control of the State Board of Education. Board members, once appointed by the governor and confirmed by the Senate for their term, exercised their independent judgment in carrying out the duties and responsibilities of their office.   

An inflection point occurred in 2011 when, for the first time in modern history, the Republican Party gained control of the House, Senate and Governor’s office, and all statewide elected offices, including State Superintendent of Public Instruction. Understandably, the new governor, Mary Fallin; the new superintendent, Janet Barresi; and the legislature interpreted their sweep as a mandate for change.

When the appointed State Board members, serving staggered terms, refused to immediately adopt the recommendations of Superintendent Barresi, the legislature passed Senate Bill 435, which ousted all the sitting board members and made the appointment of the State Board of Education members as four-year terms concurrent with the sitting governor. Gov. Fallin appointed new board members. In addition, the board was made to serve “at the pleasure” of the governor, giving the governor power to remove at will any member who does not vote as he wishes. Gov. Stitt has exercised that power stating, “We certainly want our appointees to think the way we do and to encourage all the things that we’re talking about. So, I assume they would be right in line with where my beliefs are.”

The legislature, also in 2011, passed House Bill 2139, which strengthened the powers of the state superintendent, stating the “State Superintendent shall have control of and direct the State Department of Education and shall perform any other duties pertaining to the public school system as shall be prescribed by law or the state board of Education.” As the result of the 2011 legislation, the governor has complete control of the State Board of Education. The State Superintendent has shared control of the Department of Education.

Those familiar with the state’s recent political history know that Superintendent Barresi’s school policies and administration were so unpopular that, after one term, when running for re-election she came in third in a three-way Republican primary election garnering only 21 percent of the votes. During Gov. Stitt’s first term, conflict developed between the governor-appointed board and State Superintendent Joy Hofmeister, both Republicans at the time. Given the current turmoil, it seems the time may be right for the legislature to take another look at education governance in Oklahoma.


Steve Lewis served as Speaker of the Oklahoma House of Representatives from 1989-1990. He currently practices law in Tulsa and represents clients at the Capitol.

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