The Oklahoma State Board of Education downgraded the Tulsa Public Schools on July 28, issuing an “Accreditation with Warning.”
The rebuke went further than the recommendation made by the Board’s general counsel Brad Clark and the State Superintendent of Public Instruction Joy Hofmeister and was based solely on a single accusation by a white Memorial High School teacher that the Tulsa District had violated House Bill 1775. Though not officially named by the state, the teacher who purportedly complained is Amy Cook, an Owasso resident and former Republican candidate for the Oklahoma State Senate.
The controversial statute, pushed through by Oklahoma Republican lawmakers in 2021, prohibits teaching certain concepts commonly used in race and sex bias training.
The Board decided the unexpectedly harsh action should be taken by 4—2 vote. Board Member Carlisha Williams Bradley, who is the board’s lone African American and executive director of ImpactTulsa, and Hofmeister, who is former Republican-turned-Democrat running for governor, were the only two members of the seven-member board who voted against this censure of Tulsa Public Schools. Board member Trent Smith, who is a commissioner on the Oklahoma Employment Security Commission, was absent and did not vote.
The vote, following nearly an hour of heated discussion, labels the alleged offense as a “serious distraction from the quality of the school education.”
The decision, far more severe than the citation of “Accreditation with Deficiency,” that the Board’s staff had earlier recommended, suggested that the Board wanted to send a message to Tulsa Public Schools to steer clear of training teachers on racial bias.
There are five tiers to accreditation. The ranking of “accreditation with warning” is two levels away from losing accreditation.
Evidence not submitted
In making the case for censuring Tulsa Public Schools, proponents presented no evidence of the alleged infraction of HB 1775. Clark, the Board’s general counsel, reported that he had recommended that TPS be “censured” based on an audio of a training session given to TPS teachers in February. But the audio was not provided to members of the state Board of Education for review or to lawmakers who requested it. Through a public records request, The Oklahoma Eagle was also denied access to the audio by the Board.
Clark told the Board that the training audio had “no express statement,” breaking the law. At a previous meeting, he had told the Board that it “was the spirit of the training or design of it” that was the violation. During the July 28 hearing, Clark said he no longer had access to the audio.
State Rep. Regina Goodwin, who has been publicly critical of the Board’s actions to downgrade TPS accreditation, spoke at the hearing and said that no evidence had been submitted to the Board or the public to justify any accreditation action.
“The first question is where is the evidence that [HB] 1775 was violated?” she said at the hearing. “Today, what has to be brought to the table is evidence.
Can you show us the evidence? And if not, why not? The public school should have known what was the violation.”
In sharing her perspective to other board members, Williams Bradley said, “we all have implicit biases because we all have different lived experiences.” Referring to Clark, Williams Bradley added, “he made an inference from the audio as a white man.”
“How can one teacher’s feelings of guilt or shame detract from the quality of an entire district school education program?” she asked.
Other board members conceded that they neither had received nor listened to the training audio that the Memorial teacher claimed violated state law.
And yet, Oklahoma Secretary of Education Ryan Walters, who is running for state superintendent, also urged the board to take strong action against the state’s second largest public schools district.
“What we’ve seen in Tulsa Public Schools has to be addressed,” Walters said. “We have seen a superintendent in Deborah Gist, who has violated state law and has openly bragged about violating this law. She has indicated she will continue to break this law. What we see is left-wing indoctrination pushed into the school system under the guise of academic learning that not only violates state law but is a grave disservice to our kids.”
He urged the board to “hold this school accountable.”
Board member Estela Hernandez agreed with Walters, accusing the Tulsa district of deliberately flouting the law and arguing that the extra level of demotion was necessary to “send a message.”
She said she initially supported placing the Tulsa district on probation, before changing her mind.
“We’ve seen this district, not only with 1775, but in other ways, violate the opportunity for these students to get exceptional quality education,” Hernandez said.
Board member Brian Bobek, a product of Tulsa Public Schools and lives in Oklahoma City, made the motion to downgrade the accreditation to a “warning” adding that “whoever took the training was labeled as biased.”
Superintendent Gist Absent
Gist and other Tulsa Public Schools’ administrative officials were conspicuously absent from the board’s July 28 meeting. None were on hand to defend the training or object to the recommendation for downgrading. Hofmeister asked early in the meeting if any school official was there who wished to speak, and her question was met with silence.
When quizzed by board members, Clark said Gist had previously submitted a letter explaining why the training was not a violation but had agreed, in his words, “to clarify” the implicit bias training.
The letter, dated March 30, was from the Tulsa Public Schools’ general counsel Jana Burk.
A copy of the letter was obtained by the Eagle, pursuant to an open records request. In it, Burk states, “We have reviewed the requirements of HB 1775 and do not agree with the complainant that the training violates that law.”
Her letter lays out, in detail, why the law was not violated. However, this letter and other documents or defense of the training were not entered into the public record at the Board meeting.
Hofmeister tried to steer the Board to a more moderate path and follow the “deficiency” recommendation from the staff. However, during the public comment period of the meeting, opinion was evenly divided on the item.
Walters, who is running to replace Hofmeister, spoke and said he “demanded the board” take action against “Superintendent Gist’s certification.”
In a more measured response, Oklahoma PTA President Lori Wathen objected to any action against Tulsa, saying, “diverse and inclusionary curricula are imperative for our children.”
Tulsa school board member Jennettie Marshall, who did not attend, did post her frustrations with the Board’s actions on her Facebook page.
“The board action was a high tech lynching of a determined few to tighten the noise (sic) of targeted bias around the neck of TPS without verified legal justification,” she wrote.
Leslie Berger, spokeswoman for the State Department of Education, told the Eagle, “There is no appeals process,” when asked about the school district’s options in light of the Board’s decision to downgrade Tulsa’s accreditation.