Is history repeating with state’s current education turmoil? (Capitol Update)

With the first post-pandemic school year about to start, a devastating teacher shortage, and many students who have fallen behind because of the interruptions in their education, you’d think the state board of education would be laser focused on policies to help overcome those challenges. Instead, they are busy monitoring the implementation of House Bill 1775, a convoluted bill passed in 2021 that prohibits teachers, administrators, or other school employees from requiring or making part of a course certain concepts regarding race and sex.

The board has created turmoil by recently placing Tulsa Public Schools and Mustang Public Schools on probation for violations of the regulations implementing the act. Both schools asked for reconsideration, which was denied. Mustang had self-reported an admitted single violation by a teacher, which had already been dealt with locally. Tulsa denied the violation allegedly committed by a vendor presenting information intended to help implement HB 1775. The state board’s attorney admitted the written materials presented did not violate the law, but he said the oral presentation did. When it later turned out that the oral presentation was the same as the written material, the board refused to reconsider the penalty. 

Both actions by the board were over the objections and against the votes of State Superintendent Joy Hofmeister and Carlisha Williams Bradley, the only Black member of the board. Some of the turmoil can be traced to statutory changes to the makeup of the board as the result of legislation passed back in 2011. Before that the board was made up of the State Superintendent and six members, each appointed for six-year terms by the governor. Every year, one member’s term expired, and the governor made a new appointment. It took a governor four years to appoint a board majority, giving the board some independence. 

Gov. Mary Fallin and State Superintendent Janet Barressi were first elected in 2010. The holdover board members appointed by Gov. Brad Henry were unwilling to immediately adopt some of the recommendations of Superintendent Baressi. So, in 2011, the legislature, with close votes in both the House and Senate, passed Senate Bill 435 authored by then-President Pro Tem Brian Bingman and Speaker Kris Steele, which ousted the entire board and gave the governor immediate appointing authority of all six board members for four-year terms, to serve at the pleasure of the governor. 

Things didn’t work out so well for Baressi. She used her influence with a compliant board and her relationship with Gov. Fallin to implement policies so unpopular she came in a distant third in a three-way Republican primary when she ran for re-election in 2014 after one term. The turmoil over HB 1775 makes one wonder if history might repeat itself. Gov. Kevin Stitt, with his appointed Secretary of Education Ryan Walters as point man, has made it clear he will remove any board member who votes against his wishes. Then he has used the board to wage an ideological campaign on education culture-war issues and school vouchers. Tulsa and Mustang Public Schools are collateral damage. The issues will likely be resolved in the November election. 


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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