Gov. Kevin Stitt recently announced the appointment of Ryan Walters, a young former classroom teacher from McAlester, as his new Secretary of Education. Walters, who was McAlester Teacher of the Year in 2015 and a finalist for State Teacher of the year in 2016, left the classroom and became Executive Director of Oklahoma Achieves. Oklahoma Achieves was created by the State Chamber of Oklahoma as an advocacy organization to influence Oklahoma education policy. Part of its legislative agenda while Walters was there was to support the passage of policies that promote school choice to give students free market choice when selecting their school, to oppose efforts to restrict charter school expansion, and to give public charter schools equal access to similar resources as traditional public schools.
At the time of his appointment by Stitt, Walters was Executive Director of Every Kid Counts Oklahoma (EKCO). EKCO bills itself as an organization that “is uniquely positioned to effect change in the Oklahoma education system by encouraging partnerships with existing education-centered organizations across the state and providing a platform for leaders to have their voices heard for education reform in Oklahoma.”
The appointment of Walters to implement a Stitt agenda for education may set up an interesting dynamic going forward. The framers of the Oklahoma Constitution considered education important enough that they created a separate Article 13 for Education. Article 13 Section 5 provides “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.” By statute, the Legislature has provided that, “The State Superintendent of Public Instruction is the official provided for in Section 1 of Article VI of the Oklahoma Constitution who shall be the executive officer of the State Board of Education and have control of and direct the State Department of Education.”
Until 2011, the Governor appointed Board of Education members for staggered six-year terms. In 2011, after the election of Gov. Mary Fallin and State Supt. Janet Barresi, the holdovers from the previous Gov. Brad Henry administration were creating controversy by opposing some of Barresi’s policies, which were also supported by Gov. Fallin. To silence them, the Legislature changed the terms of the Board of Education to four years at the pleasure of the Governor. Fallin then replaced the vocal board members. Gov. Stitt has inherited this increased influence with the board.
Now, with a Secretary of Education as part of the Governor’s cabinet, a more recent creation, the lines of authority are, to say the least, confusing. Superintendent Joy Hofmeister, twice elected state-wide, could be reduced to just a vote on the Board. A taste of that possibility was seen recently when the Stitt-appointed Board turned the Superintendent’s standards for school reopening into guidelines only.