Ray Carter | February 4, 2021
OSDE directs teachers to controversial organization
During the week of the 2020 presidential election, the official Facebook page of the Oklahoma State Department of Education encouraged teachers to use materials produced by an organization that critics say has actively worked to brand orthodox Christians and mainstream conservative organizations as “hate groups.”
On Nov. 3, 2020, the Oklahoma State Department of Education (OSDE) directed school officials to a post from the “Teaching Tolerance” page (since renamed “Learning for Justice”) maintained by the Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC). The accompanying message declared, “As polarization, political intimidation and tensions escalate before and after the election, schools will face challenges. This resource can help you proactively consider what to do in the event of hate incidents, biased speech or polarized discussions.”
The link takes citizens to a “school climate resources” page provided by the SPLC.
One national expert on the SPLC says Oklahoma parents should be wary of schools using that organization’s materials.
“I definitely recommend parents and concerned citizens to reach out and let the government know just what the SPLC is,” said Tyler O’Neil, senior editor of PJ Media and author of Making Hate Pay: The Corruption of the Southern Poverty Law Center. “As I wrote, it’s a very corrupt organization that weaponizes its history as a civil rights group. It still does some good work, but it weaponizes its history going after the KKK to brand mainstream conservative and Christian organizations as hate groups and get them blacklisted.”
O’Neil said the Teaching Tolerance program is used by the SPLC as an “opportunity to spread far-left propaganda.”
“They’ve championed ‘micro-aggressions’ for kids as young as first grade. They’ve pushed transgender ideology and gender confusion for, essentially, all ages—I believe, going back to pre-K,” O’Neil said. “They’ve intentionally interpreted current events and history in a way that presses liberal activism on children in the name of teaching tolerance.”
One SPLC document provided to educators on the resources page, “Let’s Talk,” is described as a guide that will help teachers have “critical conversations” with students.
“It’s important to remember that students want to talk about these issues,” the guide states. “They recognize the injustice inherent in racism, gender bias, ableism, anti-immigrant sentiment, religious and anti-LGBTQ bias and more—and they see these prejudices at work in the world every day.”
The “Let’s Talk” guide informs teachers that common topics for “critical conversations” include body type/sizeism; gender identity/gender discrimination; transphobia; anti-Semitism, Islamophobia “and other religious prejudice”; sexual orientation/homophobia; and more.
In a section titled, “One educator explains,” teacher Christian Torres urges teachers to find new ways to teach the book, To Kill a Mockingbird, the story of a young white girl whose father, Atticus Finch, represents a black man falsely accused of rape in Alabama in the 1930s.
While the book, first published in 1960, has long been praised for addressing racial discrimination and injustice, Torres described it as problematic.
“Of course, there is something to be said for not teaching To Kill a Mockingbird and instead teaching a book written by a person of color,” Torres wrote. “I think that is a perfectly valid argument for moving away from the text.”
Torres described being “uncomfortable” with the book because of “realizations about the white savior trope” in the book. Among other things, Torres criticized the fact that the book refers to the man falsely accused of rape as a “clean-living” black person.
However, Torres wrote that the book could still be used in a classroom setting to teach students “a valuable lesson about history, power, who gets to tell stories and how they get to do so.”
“I needed them to understand that society has been feeding communities of color a lie about their self-worth,” Torres wrote.
The “Let’s Talk” guide also warns teachers that “critical conversations” “about identity and injustice often hit close to home” and “can provoke a range of responses,” including anger that may “manifest in interruptions, loud talking, sarcasm or explicit confrontations; trauma or shame might lead to crying.”
In addition to the materials it provides to educators, the SPLC is known for its “hate map.” While that map does identify groups such as the Ku Klux Klan as “hate” organizations, it also lumps in many others that O’Neil said mostly fall into two groups: Those that “barely exist” and mainstream conservative organizations.
At the one extreme, O’Neil said the SPLC once declared a single woman with a blog to be a “hate group,” while at the other extreme the SPLC appears to target groups because they define marriage as the union of one man and one woman (such as the Family Research Council) or defend religious liberty cases in court, including cases that have gone before the U.S. Supreme Court (such as the Alliance Defending Freedom).
“They very clearly are using it to tar their opponents, their political and ideological opponents,” O’Neil said, adding that the list also plays a prominent role in the SPLC’s fundraising efforts.
The SPLC’s hate map for Oklahoma lists 12 organizations. Most appear to have little or no public profile. The list includes Firm 22, Folks Front/Folkish Resistance Movement, Israel United In Christ, Israelite School of Universal Practical Knowledge, League of the South, Neo-Confederate Wewoka, Nation of Islam, Patriot Front, Proud Boys, Stedfast Baptist Church, and Vinlanders Social Club.
This isn’t the first time the Oklahoma State Department of Education has relied on or promoted material produced by the SPLC.
An August 2019 OSDE newsletter sent to all Title IX coordinators in Oklahoma school districts included a section devoted to “LGBT-Inclusive Schools & Classrooms” that advised, “Allow transgender and intersex students to use the restroom in which they are most comfortable, whether it’s the gender-neutral restroom or the restroom that corresponds with the student’s self-identified gender.”
The OSDE newsletter’s language on “LGBT-Inclusive Schools & Classrooms” was taken, almost word for word, from the “Teaching Tolerance” project of the Southern Poverty Law Center.
At the time, an OSDE spokesperson said the agency newsletter’s material on creating LGBT-inclusive schools “should have clearly attributed that the recommendations in question came from a non-governmental entity and not the OSDE nor any other governmental body.”
State Superintendent of Public Instruction Joy Hofmeister subsequently refused to meet in public with a state lawmaker and citizens concerned about the newsletter.
On Feb. 4, OSDE’s Facebook page again posted material from the SPLC’s “Teaching Tolerance” site that touted three children’s books as including “a range of perspectives too often missing in classrooms and curricula.”
The “Booklist” review for one of those books, “We are Water Protectors,” says it was written “in response to the construction of the Dakota Access Pipeline, famously protested by the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe,” and that it provides “an unapologetic call to action.” The “Kirkus Reviews” review of the book says it invites “readers to stand up for environmental justice.” The publisher’s description says the book “issues an urgent rallying cry to safeguard the Earth’s water from harm and corruption.”
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.