Walters threatens TPS with accreditation lowering after religious freedom rally
Following conflict over prayer at a graduation, state Superintendent Ryan Walters says he plans to assess Tulsa Public Schools’ accreditation status.
After TPS board member E’Lena Ashley prayed at a graduation, she was reprimanded by board president Stacey Woolley. In response, Walters and other conservative leaders in Oklahoma held a rally at the district’s administrative offices this afternoon.
“At the next board meeting we have next month, we will be looking at Tulsa Public Schools’ accreditation for all their violations, fiscal mismanagement in this district, and we are going to make sure that religious liberties are protected in Tulsa Public Schools,” Walters told reporters after the news conference.
An accreditation lowering would be the second in as many years for TPS. In 2022, the state lowered the district’s status to “accredited with warning” after it allegedly violated a law that prohibits certain teachings on race or sex.
Walters did not say if he or Ashley tried to resolve the conflict personally before the rally, which has been done at other districts with similar issues in the past.
In a statement, Woolley says TPS has an obligation to uphold the country’s principle of religious liberty. That is why board members cannot impose religious traditions on public school students, she claimed.
But speakers at the rally had a different take on religious freedom. State Republican Party Chairman and Senator Nathan Dahm pointed to the 2022 Supreme Court ruling that sided with a high school football coach who prayed with his players at a game.
“We stand with school board member Ashley in these observances, that she has not violated the Constitution without that; the government does not have a duty to suppress religious observations; that they actually have a duty and responsibility to protect them,” he said.
After the rally, Walters said “religious liberties” means people in public schools may exercise any faith freely but defended Ashley’s actions. He also said atheism “is the de facto religion” of Oklahoma public schools, and claimed faith is under attack.
The rally itself was contentious — before and during the speeches, protesters and supporters yelled at each other. A protester blared a siren over Ashley as she prayed to open the rally. Another threatened to press charges against a supporter who touched her.
During his speech, state Senator Dana Prieto said “a lot of people wet their Huggies” after Ashley prayed at the graduation.
“I can see some people here who are wetting their Huggies,” Prieto said to the crowd.
“Unfortunately, it’s not just woke mobs out here at rallies, but you also have a woke mob at Tulsa Public Schools,” Walters told the crowd at the rally.
Several clergy of other faiths were present at the rally in protest. The protesters referenced them as they chanted over the speakers.
When asked about the Supreme Court ruling, some of the protestors referenced Rabbi Marc Fitzerman of The Synagogue in midtown Tulsa, who said he cares about “the health of this society.”
“I grew up in a majority-Jewish neighborhood, and what I very much value about that experience is that our public schools were free of the intrusions of religion,” he said. “My parents could have chosen to educate me in a private parochial school, but they wanted me to be a full participant in American society. I valued that experience, and I don’t want that to be interfered with by loud political voices.”