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Walters taps Heritage Foundation president, other conservative figures for social studies committee

State Superintendent Ryan Walters announced a mandate to require the Bible in classrooms at the May 2024 State Board of Education meeting.
Beth Wallis
StateImpact Oklahoma
State Superintendent Ryan Walters announced a mandate to require the Bible in classrooms at the May 2024 State Board of Education meeting.

Walters announced the Executive Review Committee Tuesday in a news release, saying the goal of the standards overhaul was to eliminate DEI and “indoctrination,” and his approach “highlights American exceptionalism.”

The committee features prominent conservatives, including Dennis Prager of PragerU, David Barton of the Christian Nationalist organization Wallbuilders, and the president of the Heritage Foundation, Kevin Roberts. The Heritage Foundation is the think tank behind Project 2025, a movement that proposes to dismantle the U.S. Department of Education.

“It is crystal clear that we need to return to more rigorous social studies standards that emphasize the unique and exceptional nature of the American republic, promote a proper understanding of the nation’s founding, and instill pride in our civic traditions and Oklahoma heritage,” Walters said in the release. “I am very excited to have enlisted some of the brightest minds available to serve on our Executive Review Committee.”

According to the release, the revised standards will “incorporate the introduction of the Bible as an instructional resource,” and referred to Walters’ mandate announcement at a recent State Board of Education meeting. The announcement was accompanied by a memo to districts instructing them to “incorporate the Bible, which includes the Ten Commandments, as an instructional support into the curriculum across specified grade levels, e.g., grades 5 through 12.”

The Oklahoma Attorney General told StateImpact at the time it did not read Walters’ memo as requiring the Bible to be taught in the classroom. Walters clarified to reporters after the announcement that teachings on the Bible should be “strictly from a historical perspective.”

Academic standards guide schools on topics that must be taught, but districts maintain exclusive authority over curriculum, reading lists, instructional materials and textbooks.

Standards are set by the state department, receive a public comment period and must get approval from the State Board of Education and the legislature. Social studies standards are up for review next year and will likely be adopted in time for the 2025 to 26 school year.

Other committee members include:

  • Robert Pondiscio, a senior fellow at the conservative think tank American Enterprise Institute; 
  • Everett Piper, former president of Oklahoma Wesleyan University and current conservative columnist and commentator; 
  • John Dwyer, an adjunct history professor at Southern Nazarene University and historical narrative author; 
  • David Goodwin, the president of the Association of Classical Christian Schools and author of classical Christian education books;
  • Mark Bauerlein, an English professor emeritus at Emory University and senior editor for the religious journal, First Things;
  • Steve Deace, a conservative talk show host; and
  • Stacy Washington, a conservative radio show host and co-chair of the Project 21 National Advisory Council for the conservative think tank, the National Center for Public Policy Research.

The news release notes the list of committee members is a partial list.

The current Oklahoma Academic Standards for social studies list religion in several ways for students in fifth through seventh grades: analyzing the role of religion in colonial America; describing the cultural traits of practiced religions; and for societies in the Eastern hemisphere: evaluating the impact of the major religions, the significance of religion in contemporary societies and how religion can unify and divide people.

For junior high and high school students, the standards instruct to: compare cultural perspectives of American Indians and European Americans regarding religion; assess the spatial dimensions of culture as defined by religion and explain how religion impacts different regions in world human geography; evaluate the impact of geography and trade on the development of culture in Africa, Asia and Europe including religion; and describe the origins, major beliefs, spread and lasting impact of the world’s major religions — including Judaism, Hinduism, Buddhism, Christianity, Islam, Confucianism and Sikhism.

The Bible is not explicitly mentioned in the standards.

Democrats from the Oklahoma House of Representatives released a statement following Walters’ committee announcement, calling the move a “violation of constitutional rights.”

“The State Superintendent continues to put his extremist political agenda over the needs of Oklahoma’s students and teachers,” wrote House Democratic Leader Cyndi Munson (D-Oklahoma City). “His Executive Review Committee is made up of extremist Republicans who are seeking to strip Oklahomans of their right to freedom of religion and a well-rounded, public education. (…) Since the Republican supermajority has done very little to hold the State Superintendent accountable, he continues to be emboldened to dismantle, defund and destroy our public school system daily.”

Former history teacher Rep. Jacob Rosecrants (D-Norman) called the overhaul a “blatant disregard of the Constitution.”

“We already know that the State Superintendent doesn’t care about the children and parents of Oklahoma; he only cares for himself and his next appearance on far-right news media,” Rosecrants said in the release. “His enlisting of out-of-state extremists behind Project 2025 to revamp our own Oklahoma State standards in social studies only further proves this.”

Copyright 2024 KGOU

Beth Wallis holds a journalism degree from the University of Oklahoma. Originally from Tulsa, she also graduated from Oklahoma State University with a bachelor's degree in music education and a master's degree in conducting performance. She was a band director at a public school for five years.