After education board hands down punishments to school districts, questions remain about what happens next
After the state Board of Education voted to downgrade the accreditation status of two Oklahoma school districts, questions remain about how the punishment will impact the schools.
Jennettie Marshall, a Tulsa Public Schools board member, said she worried Tulsa schools would be harmed if the downgrade leads parents to seek districts without the black eye of a warning on their record. The district is already facing a staffing shortage and low student enrollment.
“Any time people are coming into Tulsa to find jobs, realtors will show them schools that don’t have a negative record,” she said. “If the school has had their accreditation lowered, they’ll take parents to outlying areas.”
Marshall also worries about the impact on Tulsa’s economy.
“We have companies here courting people all the time, and I have a feeling that those students and families will not be pushed to TPS given everything that’s going on politically,” she said.
On Thursday, The State Board of Education voted 4-2 to downgrade the accreditation status of both Mustang and Tulsa Public Schools from “accredited” to “accredited with a warning” for violating HB 1775, a bill passed last year that placed restrictions on teaching race and gender issues in Oklahoma public schools.
This decision came after a Memorial High School science teacher complained about an 18-minute online training titled “Cultural Competence and Racial Bias” she was required to complete.
The State Department of Education originally recommended Tulsa Public Schools be downgraded to “accredited with a deficiency.” But the State Board, made up of members appointed by Gov. Kevin Stitt, decided to go a step further and downgraded the school district to accredited with a warning.
The board also downgraded Mustang Public Schools’ status to the same level.
There are five tiers of accreditation, according to documents released to The Frontier on Friday by the Oklahoma State Department of Education:
- Accredited with no deficiencies
- Accredited with deficiencies
- Accredited with a warning
- Accredited with probation
The state has no appeals process for a change in accreditation status, but there’s also no additional sanctions on top of the downgrade, Leslie Berger, a spokeswoman for the State Department of Education told The Frontier. The schools will be able to have their status re-assessed in 12 months, she said.
Further violations could “negatively impact” the districts, Berger told The Frontier. When the state board placed the Western Heights School district on probation in 2021, it had 90 days to correct issues or face further punishment, including the loss of accreditation and the possibility of dissolving the school district.
State statutes require the Board of Education to close schools that lose accreditation. Students would then be re-assigned to other accredited schools or school districts.
Marshall said she was concerned that the district “has been punished without actual documentation or evidence being shown.”
“There was no violation of 1775. I think that is why they did not want to stand up and say here’s the violation because there is none,” said State Rep. Regina Goodwin, D-Tulsa, in an interview with The Frontier.
During the hearing, the Department of Education’s general counsel Brad Clark told board members that audio from the teacher training made it clear that Tulsa schools had violated HB1775. But Clark told the board he could not share the audio.
So far, Tulsa Public Schools has declined to release the training to the media, saying that it is copyrighted. The state education department has not responded to requests by The Frontier for the training, and the company that publishes it — Vector Solutions, Inc., has not responded to a request for comment.
Rep. John Waldron, D-Tulsa, a former Tulsa history teacher, said the decision would spark fear among educators and keep new companies from coming to the state creating new jobs.
“This is designed to make teachers and librarians and school officials look over their shoulders, afraid that they’re going to get more of these frivolous complaints from any direction, ” Waldron said. “And it’s certainly not going to help us make deals with companies like Panasonic if we have medieval standards of conduct in our public schools.”
Tulsa Public Schools denied any wrongdoing.
“In Tulsa, we are teaching our children an accurate — and at times painful, difficult, uncomfortable — history about our shared human experience,” the district said in a statement.
The district denied it teaches “a law school academic body of work known as ‘critical race theory,’” and that “we are focused on your child’s educational success. That means every child in Tulsa.”
The Superintendent for Mustang Public Schools said the district was “disheartened” to receive “harsh” punishment based on a “single outlier event.” The downgrade came after the Mustang district self-reported a violation related to a voluntary student exercise intended to build empathy in students.
“With the board action to increase the penalty above the recommendation, I seriously question the criteria for these Accreditation Categories. We are eager to work with the State Department to understand why this decision was made,” Charles Bradley, Mustang superintendent, said in the statement.
Rep. Regina Goodwin, D-Tulsa, who spoke at the meeting, said Tulsa Superintendent Deborah Gist should have done more to stand up to the allegation.
“What she could have done was said, ‘Hey, you know we are teaching properly. We’ve not violated any law.’ Just stand up and have lawyers ready, folks willing, and superintendents ready not to substantiate bull crap,” she said. “But that’s what happened. That’s how we got where we are today because they substantiated a claim that should not have been substantiated. Period.”
Goodwin was also disappointed that TPS did not send an official to defend the district at the State Board meeting.
Lauren Partain, a spokeswoman for Gist, did not respond to a request for comment.
“When you have a teacher who can just willy nilly say, oh, whatever and not have any proof — and we knew that’s how they created the law — the ability to know the truth and our history is sacrificed when you have narrow minded folks that think only their whitewashed versions of history should be presented,” Goodwin said. “Now who wants to be a part of that kind of school district? Who wants to be a part of that kind of city?”
The Frontier is a nonprofit newsroom that produces fearless journalism with impact in Oklahoma. Read more at www.readfrontier.org.