OEA official decries parent involvement in schools

January 19, 2022

Ray Carter

To counter the growing influence of what she calls “angry parents” who are frustrated, a teacher-union official says the OEA has obtained funding to bring people to Oklahoma City, pay for a hotel, and take them to the state Capitol to lobby.

A top official at the Oklahoma Education Association (OEA), the state’s largest teachers’ union, recently decried growing parental involvement in public schools and said the union will work to counter parent voices during this year’s state legislative session.

In a transcribed interview posted on the OEA website, Ivy Riggs, the union’s associate executive director for the Center of Legislative and Political Organizing, complained that during the 2021 legislative session “the only contact legislators were receiving was coming from angry parents who were frustrated with what was happening in schools.”

Riggs said she is worried “because what we’re seeing is a lot of screaming and yelling at school board meetings and parents that have never been involved before now want to take over school boards. Legislators are hearing from those parents.”

To counter the growing voice of Oklahoma parents in education-policy debates, Riggs said the OEA has obtained funding from its national parent, the National Education Association (NEA), that will pay for the union to bring people into Oklahoma City during the 2022 legislative session, pay for a hotel, and then take them the following morning “to the Capitol to lobby.”

The NEA funds will “even pay for a sub” to replace classroom teachers who chose to lobby legislators on behalf of the union instead of instructing students in the classroom, Riggs said.

Robert Ruiz, executive director of Choice Matters, which works with parents across the state on education issues, said groups like the OEA are making a mistake if they think parents will withdraw from education policy debates.

“The feeling from parents is that they’ve been excluded from the conversations,” Ruiz said. “This just goes to further show that there is an active effort to exclude parents’ voices when ultimately the parent voice should be the most important voice when it comes to their child’s education. Otherwise, you’re really trampling on the rights of these parents because it is an inalienable human right for a parent to be able to decide where and how their child is educated. Those rights in many cases have been taken away from parents, and parents’ voices have been excluded from these conversations, and that’s not okay. Parents are frustrated and they’re tired of it. They’ve said, ‘Enough is enough.’ And they’re going to be engaged.”

Ruiz noted groups like the OEA typically want parent involvement limited to fundraising for local schools and attendance at parent-teacher conferences, and to otherwise “shut up.” But he said many parents now see the importance of being involved in policy discussions regarding a much broader range of education issues.

“This is what real parent engagement looks like,” Ruiz said. “And it’s absolutely necessary for us to improve outcomes for students.”

CRT in the Classroom

In the transcribed interview, when Riggs was asked what legislation she expects lawmakers to advance in the 2022 session, she predicted legislators would pursue “more mandates and prohibitions on LGBTQ students” and appeared to criticize efforts to prevent the use of Critical Race Theory (CRT) in the classroom.

“I think we’re going to see more attempts at mandating what we can teach with curriculum limitations,” Riggs said. “I think we have a few folks out there who are pushing the envelope of what they are discussing in the classroom, but overall, none of these concerns are legitimate. But where it is happening, legislators are hearing about it. It’s problematic because those legislators believe it’s happening on a wider scale.”

While Riggs suggested that concepts associated with Critical Race Theory have not been employed in Oklahoma classrooms, officials with the OEA-parent NEA have explicitly called on teachers to embrace Critical Race Theory. During the NEA’s 2021 annual meeting and representative assembly, which was attended by OEA members, participants voted to create an NEA task force whose goals included “increasing the implementation” of Critical Race Theory and similar material in “curriculum in pre- K-12 and higher education.”

Another measure approved by NEA officials at the national assembly called on the union to share and publicize “information already available on critical race theory” and have a “a team of staffers” dedicated to helping union members “fight back against anti-CRT rhetoric.” The proposal also declared that in teaching social studies “it is reasonable and appropriate for curriculum to be informed by academic frameworks for understanding and interpreting the impact of the past on current society, including critical race theory.”

In addition to the NEA resolutions, a training sponsored by the OEA in 2021 encouraged teachers to embrace CRT-aligned concepts.

Several speakers at a Racial and Social Justice Symposium sponsored by the Oklahoma Aspiring Educators Association, which is part of the OEA, said teachers should view police and school-security officers as tools of white supremacy.

Another speaker at the event said he wanted to “be an agent of discomfort for white folks” and that teachers who did not share his philosophy should “get out of the profession” because they otherwise “perpetuate white supremacy and inflict harm on students of color.” The fact that most teachers are white was described as embedding “this deep layer of implicit bias” in schools. One panelist dismissed concerns about the learning loss caused by COVID shutdowns, particularly among lower-income children and minorities, as “completely centered in whiteness.”

“It’s just white learning that’s been lost,” the speaker declared.

After the content of the Racial and Social Justice Symposium was publicized, the OEA removed the associated videos from public view on its website. However, the OEA left other materials on its website that included a reading list touting material by Ibram X. Kendi, who has expressly written that “racial discrimination is not inherently racist” and that the “only remedy to past discrimination is present discrimination,” as well as materials that endorsed the “defund the police” movement.