The state’s schools chief debuted a video Thursday depicting teacher unions as enemies and the state Education Department as students’ savior, escalating his incendiary rhetoric against teachers and their professional organizations.
Earlier this month he called teachers’ unions “terrorist organizations” during a budget hearing at the state Capitol. Those comments drew a backlash and encouraged some to attend Thursday’s meeting and speak out.
The five-minute video was shown during the Board of Education meeting and posted on the state Department of Education’s YouTube page. As of Friday morning, the video’s Youtube settings had been changed to private, making it unavailable. The dramatized production contains foreboding music interspersed clips of Superintendent of Public Instruction Ryan Walters’ appearances on Fox News with soundbites of National Education Association President Becky Pringle, Vice President Kamala Harris and others.
Offended and appalled, some teachers walked out of the room and headed to the Capitol to talk to lawmakers. Some said they were afraid the video would incite violence against teachers.
The video begins with an aerial image of the state Capitol building and the text: “Who’s in charge of our kids?” Speakers at a National Education Association convention are shown, advocating for supporting students of all identities. Overlaid on the images is a logo for the NEA’s state affiliate, the Oklahoma Education Association.
There are also clips of author Maia Kobabe, who wrote Gender Queer, a book frequently targeted by Walters.
It ended with this message: “We can save education. Our kids are counting on it.”
According to the YouTube link, the video was produced by Precision Outreach, a Houston-based marketing agency. Oklahoma Watch requested the purchase order for the video, to identify the cost to taxpayers. A department spokesman has not acknowledged the request.
Walters played the video during his update portion of the meeting. About two dozen people filled available seating in the room and many stood in the hallways, unable to get a seat inside.
Other developments from the meeting:
• Walters began the meeting by leading the Pledge of Allegiance, Oklahoma state flag salute, and a prayer. He has said a prayer at each board meeting since taking office in January.
• During public comment, multiple people expressed serious concerns about the department and Walters’ rhetoric and public statements. Ashley Daly, whose daughter attends Tulsa Public Schools, said she wants public schools to teach sex education and accurate history, provide trauma-informed counseling, and pay teachers well. Melanie Spoon, a librarian at James L. Capps Middle School in Putnam City schools, said she attended to try and create a bridge to public school libraries. She encouraged Walters and the board to visit her library.
• Some people came to say they support Walters’ efforts. Bob Linn, president of the Oklahoma Conservative Political Action Committee, thanked Walters on behalf of “the vast majority of Oklahomans who voted for him” for restoring sanity in education.
• In Walters’ update, he said a new program to draw new and retired educators into the classroom has received more than 500 applicants in three weeks. According to the Department, teachers can earn between $15,000 and $50,000 by committing to teach in high-need schools and areas. The Department said the cost of the program is covered by $16 million in federal COVID-19 relief funds and special education dollars, which would require federal authorization.
• Walters railed against members of the media seated along the wall next to the conference table over reporting that his agency is not applying for federal competitive grant funding. He referenced an email, provided to Oklahoma Watch, that he says proves his office is applying for grant funding. The email, from a U.S. Department of Education address, states “we have no indication your formula funds are in jeopardy.” The email didn’t say whether the state has applied for discretionary grants this year.
• Board members approved a new list of universal and dyslexia screeners and one-time grants for Advanced Placement courses. Attorney Bryan Cleveland said there were several complaints under House Bill 1775 (the so-called anti-critical race theory law) but they were unfounded.
• Two districts received waivers to hold school fewer than the minimum 165 days next year: Jennings and Glencoe. Each proposed a calendar for 156 days but still meeting the minimum of 1,080 hours.
• The board also approved an alternative exam for 3,400 students who weren’t able to take the mandatory high school assessment before graduating. Students are required to take the exam but aren’t required to achieve a specific score.
Jennifer Palmer has been a reporter with Oklahoma Watch since 2016 and covers education. Contact her at (405) 761-0093 or email@example.com. Follow her on Twitter @jpalmerOKC.