Ray Carter | August 16, 2023
Effort to improve Tulsa schools draws threats from officials
In recent weeks, State Superintendent of Public Instruction Ryan Walters has criticized the extremely poor outcomes produced by Tulsa schools and indicated the district could have its state accreditation lowered or even face a state takeover.
In response, Democratic lawmakers have threatened to seek Walters’ removal if that occurs, even though several speakers at the group’s press conference conceded that Tulsa outcomes are poor and none offered any plan to better educate students.
Some officials even dismissed the idea that concern for students explains the attention the Tulsa district is receiving.
“He is answering the question for me of ‘What is the most progressive city in Oklahoma?’” said state Rep. Amanda Swope, D-Tulsa. “And it must be Tulsa, because he wouldn’t be coming after us like this otherwise.”
In a video recently posted on X, the site formerly known as Twitter, Walters noted that there are 15 elementary schools in the Tulsa district where less than 5% of students test proficient in reading.
In addition, 65% of Tulsa schools have received F grades on state report cards.
“That means most children in Tulsa Public Schools are in a failing school,” Walters said. “That’s unacceptable for Tulsa parents and Tulsa kids.”
He also pointed to financial-management issues in the district, saying Tulsa school officials “lost track” of $1 million with at least $400,000 of that total believed to have been embezzled.
In addition, he noted that 52% of every dollar spent in Tulsa schools goes to administration, which is “well above the state average.”
“We have to have change in Tulsa,” Walters said. “It’s got to be dramatic change. It is time the Tulsa school board and the Tulsa superintendent actually move the needle for their kids.”
Walters also released a video titled, “The Real Crisis of Tulsa’s Failing Schools.” The video included numerous TV news clips going back to 2009 in which Tulsa’s abysmal academic outcomes were noted. Those clips showed Tulsa was facing potential loss of its state accreditation as far back as 2009. One news clip from 2017 reported that some schools in the Tulsa district had no students testing at grade level.
Out of the 5,000 largest public-school districts in the United States, the video stated that Tulsa Public Schools ranks 4,982nd in reading with students 3.5 grades levels behind on average. The video also stated that Tulsa students are 3.6 grades behind in math, on average.
But at an Aug. 16 press conference, Democratic lawmakers and local officials largely dismissed those concerns and threatened retaliation should Walters and members of the State Board of Education vote to have the state take over control of the Tulsa district.
If Tulsa’s accreditation is changed in a way that Democratic lawmakers don’t like, state Rep. Monroe Nichols, D-Tulsa, said they will seek to have Walters removed as state superintendent.
He also threatened to ask the U.S. Department of Education’s civil-rights division to intervene if the state takes over the Tulsa district, suggesting the high share of black students in the district would mean such state action to improve the district would represent a civil-rights violation.
And Nichols said lawmakers should change the accreditation process if Tulsa is stripped of accreditation.
Despite the extremely poor results produced by the Tulsa school district, some officials at the press conference described the school as either a success story or typical of Oklahoma public schools.
Nichols said Tulsa is “punching above their weight.”
Swope said, “TPS is not the only school in this state with similar numbers.”
One parent speaker at the press conference dismissed the district’s low outcomes as the product of a “single test taken on a single day,” and a recent graduate of Tulsa Public Schools described criticism of Tulsa as “one branch of a much larger, well-financed and coordinated right-wing attack on America’s public schools.”
But other officials conceded that Tulsa schools are underperforming.
“We have dropped, and our numbers aren’t where they should be,” said Jennettie Marshall, a member of the Tulsa Public Schools Board. “And we acknowledge that.”
“Yes, improvements need to be made,” said state Rep. Regina Goodwin, D-Tulsa. “Absolutely.”
Goodwin said the state should downgrade Tulsa’s accreditation to “accredited with deficiencies,” but said the district should not have its accreditation revoked or be placed under state supervision.
While speakers at the press conference suggested that parents are upset the state might intervene in the district, enrollment figures suggest many families have given up on the school and voted with their feet by moving or transferring elsewhere.
In the 2012/2013 school year, there were 41,076 students enrolled in Tulsa schools, according to state enrollment data. A decade later, that figure had fallen to 33,871 in the 2022/2023 school year.
For much of that period, Tulsa Public Schools financially benefited from declining enrollment because the district continued to receive state funding for departed students up to two years after the students left.
By the 2020-2021 school year, Tulsa Public Schools was receiving state funding for nearly 3,300 such “ghost students.” Lawmakers changed state law in 2021 to rein in that practice.
A state takeover of a school district is rare, but not unprecedented.
In 2021, state tests showed that 95% of students in the Western Heights district in the Oklahoma City metro were below grade level in all subjects, and 72% were more than a year behind. Among third-grade students, 98% were below grade level in English with 88% more than a year behind.
The Western Heights district was closed to in-person learning longer than any other district in Oklahoma during COVID, although the Tulsa district was not far behind.
Western Heights’ poor outcomes occurred as questions of financial mismanagement were also raised in the district.
The State Board of Education placed Western Heights on probation in April 2021, and in July 2021 the board voted to authorize full state intervention, taking control of the district for a year. Superintendent Mannix Barnes was subsequently suspended, a move upheld by Oklahoma County District Court Judge Aletia Timmons when Barnes sued.
The State Board of Education is expected to consider Tulsa Public Schools’ accreditation when the group meets on Thursday, Aug. 24.
In his public statements, including one clip in “The Real Crisis of Tulsa’s Failing Schools” video, Walters has stressed the need to provide a better future for the children now in Tulsa schools.
“This could be an incredible district. This could be a district that people are flocking to,” Walters said. “And instead, you see people leaving, you see teachers leaving in these huge numbers. It’s unacceptable. Tulsans deserve better. But, most importantly, the kids deserve better. I’m going to do whatever it takes to make sure that every child has an opportunity to be successful, and right now that is not happening in Tulsa Public Schools.”
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.