Education

Ray Carter | June 22, 2023

Oklahoma curriculum-transparency effort shot down

Ray Carter

Efforts to guarantee parents the right to review their children’s public-school curriculum are gaining traction nationwide, including with congressional leaders.

But an effort to provide curriculum transparency to Oklahoma parents died in the Oklahoma Legislature this year after opponents said it could interfere with Diversity, Equity and Inclusion (DEI) programs and that unfettered access to school curriculum would cause Oklahoma parents to “get riled up.”

House Bill 2077, by state Rep. Chad Caldwell, would have created a state transparency portal where citizens can review public-school textbooks, library books, co-curricular content and materials including any social and emotional learning or character-based curricula, and content from third-party learning applications.

But a state House committee voted to kill the bill on March 2 after state Rep. Regina Goodwin denounced it in the name of DEI advancement.

“DEI is in ‘deity,’” said Goodwin, D-Tulsa. “Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion is god.”

Caldwell said the bill simply provided common-sense protections for parents.

“I didn’t think this was a controversial issue to say that people in the state of Oklahoma should care about what goes on in our schools,” said Caldwell, R-Enid.

“This is absolutely a controversial issue,” Goodwin responded.

“You can view it as a negative that we’re going to allow people to see what’s going on in our schools. I’m going to view that as a positive.” —State Rep. Chad Caldwell

While Goodwin touted DEI programs, such programs have come under fire for fostering racial separatism and increased strife, among other things.

A December 2022 report by the Heritage Foundation on DEI programs noted, “At the heart of these multi-billion-dollar efforts—both public and philanthropic—are certain key assumptions: America is systemically racist; white America harbors unconscious racism; and equal rights, meritocracy, and the law itself reinforce a regime of white supremacy. Most of DEI’s practices violate the Constitution and the Civil Rights Act.”

Writing in 2019, Pamela Newkirk, author of Diversity, Inc.: The Failed Promise of a Billion-Dollar Business, conceded that “a number of studies suggest that these initiatives can actually make matters worse by triggering racial resentment.”

National School Board Association’s actions prompt federal transparency bill, but the group appears tied to opposition in Oklahoma

In 2021, the National School Boards Association (NSBA) asked the Biden administration to prosecute individuals under federal anti-terrorism laws for alleged disruption of school-board meetings. The examples cited by the NSBA in its request included no examples of actual terrorism and centered mostly on parents who spoke at meetings.

The NSBA’s efforts were referenced by Republican congressional leaders when they introduced the “Parents Bill of Rights Act.” this year.

“So many times across this nation, we found that parents were attacked, called terrorists,” said U.S. House Speaker Kevin McCarthy, R-Calif. “They simply wanted to go to a school-board meeting to be heard about what’s going on.”

But in Oklahoma, opponents of curriculum transparency echoed the NSBA and opposition appeared tied, at least indirectly, to the NSBA.

Floyd Simon, a resident of Clinton, was a member of the NSBA’s board of directors in 2021-2022 when the NSBA asked the Biden administration to prosecute citizens under anti-terrorism laws.

State ethics records show Simon was a financial supporter of state Rep. Anthony Moore’s 2022 campaign. Moore, R-Clinton, joined Democratic lawmakers in voting against HB 2077 in committee.

Moore did not respond to an emailed request for comment.

Following the NSBA’s terrorism letter, numerous state school boards associations denounced the national organization and ended their affiliation with the NSBA. But the Oklahoma State School Boards Association (OSSBA) was not among that number and remains affiliated with the NSBA.

The OSSBA dismissed HB 2077, declaring, “Parents already have extensive rights to access curriculum, lesson plans and more.” Yet, even as the organization claimed schools already make curriculum material available, the OSSBA simultaneously claimed that making materials available through a statewide portal “could prove to be a tremendous burden on teachers.”

Caldwell said current law does not guarantee prompt access to school materials, including for parents whose children attend school.

“Since this bill has been out there, I’ve heard from some parents who, quite frankly, the current process hasn’t been very effective,” Caldwell said.

He noted that Texas has had a similar transparency law in place for roughly a decade, and Tennessee has had a similar law in effect for several years, with no notable problems for school officials in those states.

Opponents of HB 2077 also echoed NSBA talking points in their comments.

“DEI is in ‘deity.’ Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion is god.” —State Rep. Regina Goodwin

“I’m concerned about these activist groups that are showing up at our school boards and creating chaos that don’t have kids in the system, that this is what’s going to empower them to create more chaos,” said state Rep. Melissa Provenzano, D-Tulsa.

She did not cite any specific example of any activist group other than children’s families appearing at Oklahoma school board meetings or of any specific act of “chaos.”

State Rep. Forrest Bennett, D-Oklahoma City, voiced similar objections.

“This provides an opportunity for parents and other community members, who don’t actually have a child in the school, to get riled up, organized, and show up at school and disrupt it,” Bennett said.

“You can view it as a negative that we’re going to allow people in the state of Oklahoma to see what’s going on in our schools,” Caldwell said. “I’m going to view that as a positive.”

In many instances, Caldwell noted the bill would benefit school officials who currently must respond to social-media rumors. With a state transparency portal, citizens could quickly determine the validity of reports about school-textbook content before contacting school officials, he said.

Caldwell also pushed back against the idea that some Oklahomans should not be welcome in public debates.

“Can you give me an idea of what voices you’d like to silence?” Caldwell asked. “Which ones are you okay silencing?’

In response, Goodwin suggested critics of Diversity, Equity and Inclusion programs should be barred from public debate, characterizing those critics as people who “don’t want to include all of humanity” in school lessons.

“Perhaps those are the voices that should be silenced,” Goodwin said.

In debate, Caldwell said the issue is simple.

“If you believe our schools are better off being less transparent, then you’re going to want to vote no on this bill,” Caldwell said. “If you believe your fellow community members should be cut out of the process about what goes on in their school, you’re going to want to vote no on this bill. But if you believe the people in your community deserve to have a voice and understand what’s going on at your school, then it’s a yes. If you think things are better when they’re more transparent, then it’s a yes.”

HB 2077 failed the House Appropriations and Budget Committee on an 8-24 vote.

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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