Education , Law & Principles

Ray Carter | January 12, 2023

Activists attack Stitt nominee … for defending teacher?

Ray Carter

An activist group is apparently opposing one of Gov. Kevin Stitt’s new State Board of Education appointees because she defended a public-school teacher who reported a violation of a state law banning racist staff trainings.

Earlier this week, Stitt announced four new appointments to the State Board of Education, including Suzanne Reynolds, a pharmacist who has worked as a college instructor and whose mother was a public-school teacher.

According to The Oklahoman, the Oklahoma Parent Legislative Action Committee (PLAC) issued a statement opposing Senate confirmation of Stitt’s State Board of Education nominees. Among other things, The Oklahoman reported that PLAC officials said “those who have called for extreme sanctions outside the bounds of accepted rules for school districts should have no place on such a board.”

That was interpreted as an attack on Reynolds, who defended a public-school teacher at a July 2022 meeting of the State Board of Education and urged officials to sanction the Tulsa school district for violating state law.

Under House Bill 1775, which was signed into law in 2021, it is illegal to teach Oklahoma students that “one race or sex is inherently superior to another race or sex,” that “an individual, by virtue of his or her race or sex, is inherently racist, sexist, or oppressive, whether consciously or unconsciously,” and other concepts broadly associated with Critical Race Theory.

The permanent rules that guide implementation of the law apply HB 1775’s prohibitions not only to classroom instruction but also training sessions, seminars, and professional-development programs for school staff.

A complaint filed with the Oklahoma State Department of Education (OSDE) alleged that the Tulsa school district violated HB 1775 during a staff training. An OSDE investigation found the complaint was valid. An OSDE attorney informed board members that OSDE officials had access not only to printed materials but also an audio recording of the training. (The vendor asserted copyright protections to prevent that audio from being shared publicly with anyone other than OSDE officials performing the review.)

At that time, the Oklahoma State Department of Education was headed by then-Superintendent of Public Instruction Joy Hofmeister, a Democrat.

During the July 2022 meeting, Reynolds addressed the state board during public comment, saying she was “appalled to see that the complainant, who apparently is a teacher in the Tulsa Public Schools, was doxxed last weekend, publicly, and her identity revealed through a press conference.”

Reynolds said she believed that effort was designed to deter other Oklahoma teachers from reporting violations of the law, calling it a “vile attempt to intimidate and endanger this individual.”

Citing publicly available data, Reynolds noted that 80 percent of students in Tulsa do not read at grade level and 84 percent are below grade-level in math, and said school officials should be focused on those challenges first and foremost.

The State Board of Education subsequently voted to impose a stronger sanction on Tulsa schools than the sanction initially proposed by OSDE staff. Board members noted the law granted latitude in determining sanctions.

A statement posted on PLAC’s Facebook page urges opposition to Stitt’s State Board of Education nominees, but the statement differs significantly from the version provided to The Oklahoman and notably does not contain the language that appeared to target Reynolds.

A spokesperson indicated that Stitt is unfazed by PLAC’s attack.

“It’s a new day in the Stitt administration,” said Kate Vesper, press secretary for Governor Stitt. “We are eager to have a board who shares the governor’s vision to put parents first, break out of our bottom ranking in education, and give every student across the state—regardless of economic status or ZIP code—the opportunity to attend a school that fits their unique needs.”

This is only the latest incidence in which PLAC officials have waded into state politics.

In 2019, at a time when state government had a $570 million surplus, PLAC publicly endorsed a House Democratic budget plan that called for spending nearly all of the surplus and also enacting hundreds of millions in additional tax increases to boost spending even more.

In 2020, PLAC called on Oklahoma lawmakers to kill numerous tax-break measures, including bills that would reduce teachers’ out-of-pocket health insurance costs, improve school security, and support adoption.

In 2021, PLAC officials opposed legislation (which ultimately became law) that reduced “ghost student” funding, a longstanding practice of paying districts with declining enrollment for students who no longer attend the district. That year, estimates showed schools were being paid about $195 million for roughly 55,000 ghost students. Just 22 districts out of the more than 500 in Oklahoma accounted for 30,691 ghost students that year.

Advocates of the funding change noted it would boost funding for most public schools. That proved true.

After lawmakers restricted ghost student funding, a report released by the Oklahoma Public School Resource Center (OPSRC) found that 60 percent of school districts would either receive more funding than under the old system or would experience no funding loss.

Ray Carter Director, Center for Independent Journalism

Ray Carter

Director, Center for Independent Journalism

Ray Carter is the director of OCPA’s Center for Independent Journalism. He has two decades of experience in journalism and communications. He previously served as senior Capitol reporter for The Journal Record, media director for the Oklahoma House of Representatives, and chief editorial writer at The Oklahoman. As a reporter for The Journal Record, Carter received 12 Carl Rogan Awards in four years—including awards for investigative reporting, general news reporting, feature writing, spot news reporting, business reporting, and sports reporting. While at The Oklahoman, he was the recipient of several awards, including first place in the editorial writing category of the Associated Press/Oklahoma News Executives Carl Rogan Memorial News Excellence Competition for an editorial on the history of racism in the Oklahoma legislature.

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