Growing presence of politics in education has Oklahomans wondering, ‘What’s the end goal?’
OKLAHOMA CITY — Bus routes. Literacy. Career Prep.
These are the types of topics Chris McNeil said he wants to explore as a parent and board of education member in Union Public Schools.
But his southeast Tulsa district spent its second week of school grappling with another, more urgent issue — bomb threats.
The threatening messages arrived after a district librarian’s satirical video about having a “woke agenda” of promoting kindness was altered and shared on conservative social media channels. The anonymous threats accused the district of indoctrinating and preying on children.
McNeil said Union is a district that focuses on the needs and input of students and their families, but “that was the opposite of how it was portrayed politically.” He commended district employees, who showed up to work despite the threats.
“I think an important thing to consider is what servant leadership looks like, especially in education,” McNeil said. “It’s not a lot of grandstanding. It’s not a lot of flashy tactics. It’s not a lot of political drama.”
Like McNeil, Oklahomans across the state said they, too, have noticed that public school issues have become more politicized. While disagreeing on the source of the partisanship, they complain teaching and learning has been disrupted by an increasingly polarized political climate.
The head of Oklahoma’s public school system, Superintendent Ryan Walters, shared the doctored video of the Union librarian on his social media with the comment “Woke ideology is real and I am here to stop it.”
The superintendent’s spokesperson, Dan Isett, rejected any insinuation that Walters’ social media post prompted bomb threats. He said the threatening messages targeted Walters, as well.
Much of the public criticism attacked Walters anyway for publicizing the video that preceded the threats.
As the bomb warnings continued for multiple days and escalated in scope, a bipartisan chorus called for an end to political rhetoric in education.
Republican leaders, including House Speaker Charles McCall, urged elected officials to avoid “adding fuel to the fires of controversy.”
A Tulsa Republican, Rep. Jeff Boatman, similarly asked that education leaders tone down “dangerous, divisive rhetoric.” He said voices on both ends of the political spectrum have spent too much time airing grievances on social media and “bloviating nonsense.”
“At some point we need to get serious people to sit down in a room and actually have a conversation and talk about what our outcomes are in education and talk about what we want out of our public education system,” Boatman said.
Others say education was too politicized well before the bomb threats.
When McNeil ran for his Union school board seat last year, he was surprised to find how present politics were in the nonpartisan race.
He said he wanted to discuss education topics — like reading, science and propelling students toward successful careers — but some voters were more interested in partisan issues and refused to meet with him because of his party affiliation.
“It was really distressing to see that’s how people made that delineation,” McNeil said. “Are you conservative or not? Are you X, Y, Z?”
The politicized climate surrounding education weighed on Kyle Reynolds’ mind as he decided to retire this year as superintendent of Woodward Public Schools. Based on what he’s heard from other school leaders, Reynolds said even more have contemplated retirement or finishing their career in other states.
Being a district superintendent is a difficult job on a good day, he said, and it becomes “impossible” when the state Department of Education’s focus is on culture-war topics and political ideology.
“You’re already dealing with your local issues and things going on that a school administrator has to deal with on a daily basis,” Reynolds said. “And you just add another layer on top of that when you have that additional pressure coming from the next level.”
Even Walters and his supporters have complained about political forces at play in public education.
The state superintendent campaigned on the promise that he would eliminate liberal indoctrination from schools — an objective he cited as the inspiration for several new policies.
Walters ordered all public universities and school districts to compile reports detailing their diversity equity and inclusion programs, initiatives that Walters called Marxist.
He spent much of his time in office opposing “radical gender theory” and transgender identities. Lately, he pressured Western Heights Public Schools to fire a principal who moonlights as a drag queen.
At the same time, Walters has welcomed conservative and religious entities into Oklahoma’s public school system.
He encouraged schools to use “pro-America” lessons from the conservative media group PragerU and has been a vocal supporter of founding a state-funded Catholic charter school.
Walters also threatened a major accreditation penalty and potential takeover of Tulsa Public Schools if it doesn’t rapidly improve its academic performance.
“It’s liberal Democrats and the education establishment who seem very upset by the fact that he’s not going to be an agent of the status quo,” said Isett, Walters’ spokesperson. “He was elected to reform education in Oklahoma, and that’s exactly what he’s doing.”
Walters’ message is necessary and what many Oklahomans want, said Bob Linn, the president of the Oklahoma Conservative Political Action Committee Foundation.
Much like Walters has, Linn blamed teachers unions and liberal politicians for funneling inappropriate material and extreme-left ideology into schools. He said they exclude education on the Bible and Christian principles that represent America’s heritage.
“I don’t understand how anybody could say Ryan Walters has injected politics into the classroom,” he said. “It’s actually Ryan Walters who’s wanting to remove the influence of extreme left politics from the classroom.”
Teachers unions have been a frequent target for criticism. Walters called them a “terrorist organization” in a May hearing at the state Capitol.
The Oklahoma Education Association, the state’s largest teachers union, is more than just an office building, said its president, Katherine Bishop. It’s the 30,000 educators who make up its membership, and for them, the attacks have been “exhausting.”
“What is beyond me is we had historic funding this year, teacher pay raises, more money than ever into our schools,” Bishop said. “That’s what we should be focused on. We should be focused on how do we get more teachers into our classrooms, not spreading falsehoods.”
Back in the Union district, the quickest way McNeil found to dispel conflict and to learn “what is hot air and what is truth,” is to visit a school and witness the work being done in education.
He said he prefers to take a neighborhood approach to solving problems — first by listening and learning what ground-level issues impact students’ daily lives.
“What skills are we actually teaching by bickering at each other?” McNeil said. “What’s the end goal? It’s not what we want for Oklahoma. It’s not what we need for our neighbors and friends. It’s not how we get out of the bottom level of health and education.”