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State superintendent race: Can the candidates do what they propose?

Ryan Walters and Jena Nelson
Oklahoma Watch
Ryan Walters and Jena Nelson

As Election Day nears, the candidates for state superintendent of public instruction have been busy selling voters on their ideas.

But the state superintendent can’t enact every policy on their own; most require legislative approval. Oklahoma Watch took a look at several of the candidates’ proposals to answer a question: Can they do that?

There are two candidates for state superintendent on the ballot: Jena Nelson, a Democrat, and Ryan Walters, a Republican. Both are certified teachers.

Nelson, 44, teaches at Classen School of Advanced Studies Middle School in Oklahoma City Public Schools and was the 2020 Oklahoma Teacher of the Year. She’s on a leave of absence to campaign.

Walters, 37, is the state secretary of education and executive director of Every Kid Counts Oklahoma, a nonprofit organization that supports charter schools and private school vouchers.

Here’s an analysis of several policy proposals made by the candidates:

Patriotic Training For Educators

Walters at a campaign event in Bartlesville recently suggested that, if elected, he would put history teachers through patriotic training. He said he’s in talks with Hillsdale College to provide the course.

Hillsdale College is a small private Christian school in Michigan known for its principled refusal of state and federal funds, including through student loans or grants such as Pell Grants, and its role in the Trump administration’s 1776 Commision.

Hillsdale has been expanding its conservative, American exceptionalismcurriculum into elementary and secondary schools through a network of classical charter schools, with the first in Oklahoma,Tulsa Classical Academy, slated to open in 2023.

Local school boards and the state Legislature set teacher training in Oklahoma. Currently, there aretwo dozen statewide requirements, including preventing seizures, reporting suspected child abuse, autism support, and digital teaching and learning. Not all are required of all educators, and new requirements are added regularly.

To implement patriotic training statewide as a requirement, Walters would need legislative approval. Lawmakers proposed twobills this year that would have allowed schools to use the Hillsdale curriculum in classrooms, but neither passed out of committee.

Eliminating State Tests

Nelson said during acandidate debate on FOX 25 she would eliminate state tests, instead using benchmark tests at the beginning, middle and end of the year to measure student performance — with the end of the year scores counting for state test data.

By using benchmark tests, teachers can intervene sooner when a student needs help, she said. State test results are typically not available until summer or early fall when students have already progressed to the next grade level.

The Every Student Succeeds Act, the main federal law governing education, requires states to test students annually in reading and math in grades 3 through 8 and once in high school. It also requires statewide science assessments at least once in elementary, middle and high school. The law allows states to use multiple measures of proficiency instead of one big end-of-year exam, as long as the tests are given statewide.

Florida is moving to this model, becoming the first state in the nation to do so. Gov. Ron DeSantis earlier this year approved legislation replacing state tests with progress monitoring for school accountability starting in 2022-23. Instead of multi-day, end-of-year, high-stakes tests for English language arts and math, students will have three short check-ins throughout the school year, according to apress release by the governor’s office.

Refusing Federal Funding

At acampaign event in August, Walters said Oklahomans need to phase out federal funding for education because it’s tied to federal requirements.

Later, in avideo posted to social media, he said he wouldn’t accept federal funding that comes with mandates that aren’t useful for students, teachers or administrators or indoctrinates kids, pushes an agenda or creates socialists.

Walterstold CNHI he’s already begun phasing out some federal dollars as secretary of education and has been reviewing grants under the state Department of Education.

“Frankly, Joe Biden and Washington, D.C., don’t have a clue about how to improve Oklahoma education,” Walters said. In theFOX 25 debate, Walters said one of the federal policies he takes issue with is transgender youth using the bathroom that aligns with their gender identity. TheBiden administration has held that anti-discrimination laws apply to transgender students.

Federal funds make up an average of 10% of school districts’ budgets, or about $1,000 per student each year. These dollars provide additional resources for school lunches, after-school programs, reading specialists, tutors for students learning English and services for special education students. The funds are intended to help students obtain an equitable education.

To receive title funds, which is the main source of federal funding, the state has to have a plan approved by the U.S. Department of Education, and then districts have to apply. All states receive some federal education funds and the “vast majority” of U.S. school districts participate, the department said.

A state could reject federal funds by not submitting a plan, and districts could, on their own, not apply. But civil rights protections for students under federal law would remain.

If a district refused the funds, it would still have to follow those federal laws and appropriately serve all students, said Kathy Dunn, director of professional learning for state and federal programs at the Cooperative Council for Oklahoma School Administrators.

“I don’t know why you would (reject federal funds),” she said. “We put those funds to good use and it would leave a huge hole in school districts’ budgets.”

Oklahoma has rejected federal funds before: for Medicaid expansion. The state didn’t expand the healthcare program for low-income residents — even though 90% of the cost is covered by federal funds — until voters added the Medicaid expansion to the state constitution in 2020.

Counselors In Schools

One of Nelson’s priorities, according to hercampaign website, is to staff all schools with a counselor who has had mental health training.

Oklahoma schools are required to provide counseling services in elementary, but not necessarily by a counselor. School counselors are required for high schools.

Oklahoma also doesn’t have a mandated ratio of students to counselors for elementary schools; the ratio for sixth through 12th grades is 450 students to one counselor. The association recommends a ratio no higher than 250 students to one.

The state superintendent couldn’t strengthen those requirements without the Legislature.

But, as superintendent, Hofmeister was able to incentivize schools to hire more counselors through the Oklahoma School Counselor Corps.

Districts applied for a share of more than $35 million in grants, which helped fund counselor positions through 2023-24. Districts had to match the funds for a 50/50 split. More than 300 counselors and mental health professionals have since been hired, the Education Department said in a Septemberpress release.

Oklahoma’s ratio has improved since the program started, from 411 students per counselor to 398 students per counselor, as of 2021, the latest data available from the American School Counselor Association.

Enforcing House Bill 1775

Walters has said he would revoke the teaching credentials of any educator who violates House Bill 1775, a law passed in 2021 that restricts teachers and staff from teaching eight concepts, including that one race or sex is superior to another, and that one race is inherently racist, and that any person should feel discomfort, guilt or anguish because of his or her race or sex.

“I’m so proud of Oklahoma for being one of the first states in the country to ban critical race theory,” Walters said at theFOX 25 debate. He said he’s aware of two teachers who said they violated the law and those two teachers should be held responsible and shouldn’t be allowed to teach in the state.

So far, the law hasn’t been applied to any specific educators, but two school districts have faced consequences.

Tulsa Public Schools and Mustang Public Schools each received a warning on their accreditation this summer following complaints. In Tulsa Public Schools, a teacher complained about a professional development course that addressed implicit bias. In Mustang, the complaint centered on a student activity called “Cross the Line” which is intended to build empathy and reduce bullying.

Under state law, a teaching certificate can be revoked for “willful violation of any rule or regulation” by the state Board of Education – all of whom are appointed by the governor except the chair, who is the superintendent. Teachers are granted a hearing before the board before they can be stripped of their license.

Oklahoma Watch, at oklahomawatch.org, is a nonprofit, nonpartisan news organization that covers public-policy issues facing the state.
Oklahoma Watch
Oklahoma Watch, at oklahomawatch.org, is a nonprofit, nonpartisan news organization that covers public-policy issues facing the state.

Oklahoma Watch
Oklahoma Watch is a non-profit organization that produces in-depth and investigative journalism on important public-policy issues facing the state. Oklahoma Watch is non-partisan and strives to be balanced, fair, accurate and comprehensive. The reporting project collaborates on occasion with other news outlets. Topics of particular interest include poverty, education, health care, the young and the old, and the disadvantaged.