Friday, September 8, 2023
Oklahoma's state superintendent of schools, Ryan Walters, has generated a lot of controversy. Prior to becoming superintendent this year, Mr. Walters was appointed Secretary of Education by Governor Stitt. In May, 2022, federal auditors found that a program Mr. Walters administered had few safeguards to prevent fraud, and they opened an investigation into the distribution of COVID relief funds under Mr. Walters' tenure. That same month, Oklahoma newspapers reported that Mr. Walters was continuing in his role as Executive Director of a non-profit funded by national school privatization advocates and charter school expansion advocates. Mr. Walters was paid a salary of $120,000 in his position with that non-profit, while his state salary was only $40,000.
He stepped down from his position at the non-profit upon taking up his office as superintendent in January 2023. The Oklahoma Ethics Commission fined him for fourteen violations of state campaign ethics rules in connection with the election that got him there. The Oklahoma legislature refused to act on his nomination for a second term as Secretary of Education after the Oklahoma Attorney General told lawmakers that it was illegal for Mr. Walters to hold both positions simultaneously.
In office, Mr. Walters crossed swords with the Attorney General again, when he attempted to revoke the licenses of teachers who spoke out against new laws that regulate the ways that the subjects of race and gender can be taught in public schools. He expressed views on the Tulsa Race Massacre that earned him a parody article in The Onion. Most recently, he threatened to remove accreditation from Tulsa Public Schools, and the Tulsa superintendent resigned in protest, a move that Mr. Walters cheered, calling it a tremendous day for Tulsa parents. The school board did not agree. According to this report from local news channel, KTUL, one board member explained the decision to accept the Tulsa superintendent's resignation as follows, "We're devastated as a board but we're going to do what's best for students we have to move forward."
Now, as Chris Casteel reports in The Oklahoman, taking his cues from Florida, Mr. Walters has announced a "partnership" with PragerU Kids. PragerU's videos are provided for free, so it's not clear why a "partnership" is called for. Nor is it clear why the state would promote videos from a company whose content has been restricted, demonetized, or flagged by YouTube because they contained misinformation. In 2018, a U.S. District Court dismissed PragerU's suit against YouTube, a ruling that was upheld by the 9th Circuit on appeal.
PragerU is a non-profit organization that announces its goal as countering "the dominant left-wing ideology in culture, media, and education." Prager U is funded by conservative donors whose views on education are closely aligned with the views of those who paid Mr. Walters's salary when he was executive director of a non-profit. PragerU calls itself "the world’s leading conservative nonprofit that is focused on changing minds."
This is the politics of shamelessness. Accusing those on the left of surreptitiously doing what conservatives do openly permits politicians to boast of their adoption of shameful measures. Students deserve to be provided with the best education we can offer them. They should be provided with the full picture of the American experience, rather than one sanitized to promote a shallow patriotism fueled by ignorance of the diversity and the complexity of our shared history. If "culture, media, and education" are dominated by "left-wing views," perhaps it is because it is impossible to study U.S. history without realizing that the views of history associated with the left arose organically in response to politics and a society that have not always been consistent with the story that PragerU wants to promote about U.S. history.
As Lenzy Krehbiel-Burton and Andrea Eger report in The Tulsa World, schools have no plans to supplement their curricula with PragerU materials. According to the Oklahoma Department of Education, which has added links to PragerU to its website, the "partnership" is limited to placing those links on the state website and will not have a financial cost to the state. As so often in the culture wars, this is a lot of sound and fury over not very much because you really cannot force people to adopt the views of a small minority, no matter how vocal or how overrepresented they are in state politics. Still, there is a cost to the state. It's just not a financial cost.