Book bans, gender, private schools — public education has become extremely politicized and polarized, and a town hall meeting Tuesday afternoon in Lawton with State Superintendent for Public Instruction, Ryan Walters was a testament to that.
More than a hundred citizens attended the town hall at Trinity Christian Academy, 902 SW A, grilling and confronting Walters — who promised to “always be upfront” — with his stance on hot political issues, the future of education in Oklahoma, but also with statements he had made regarding the Tulsa Massacre.
One female attendee said his comments were insensitive for saying that racism wasn’t the main factor in the Tulsa Massacre, and Walters should apologize. Walters didn’t apologize, but instead said his words were taken out of context by some media outlets.
“That’s not what I said, a 1,000 percent was it about race,” Walters said. “That’s how it should be taught. There were racists who acted in racist ways, targeting black Tulsans. Period. What I have said is that I do not believe to teach students that they are racists because of the color of their skin. Racists make a decision to be racist. And our kids need to know that any type of behavior like that in history, we will call it out. We have great history, and we have terrible moments like that, and we need to hear all of it.”
When confronted about book bans, Walters reiterated his zero-tolerance approach against pornography in school libraries.
“Most don’t put books like ‘Flamer’ in classrooms,” he said, describing the book as containing “graphic pornography.” Walters indicated two school districts would still have them in “elementary school libraries,” because of “inclusion” efforts.
“I have a problem with that,” he said. “And most parents have a problem with that. I’m never gonna stand for pornography being pushed on kids.”
The topic was of huge interest among the audience, so much that an attendee even brought one of the mentioned books with her for other people to look at and decide for themselves.
A male attendee, a victim of abuse in his childhood, thanked Walters for keeping “perverted materials” out of the classroom. But the discussion didn’t end there, with one attendee confronting Walters about suicide rates being “off the charts” among students, partially blaming it on rhetoric regarding gender identity.
“Students shouldn’t live in fear,” she said.
“Every child should be treated with dignity,” Walters said, adding he believed that “we have to stand for truth,” prompting several amens from audience members.
“We are not going to say that boys can go into girls’ bathrooms,” Walters said. “I am not going to support that. There is a reason boys and girls don’t shower together in fifth grade. I will always fight for common sense and truth, and I believe you can do that with dignity for the individual.”
Walters went on, saying he would never allow children to be sexualized.
“A lot of it is gender ideology that says to be fully inclusive, kids in early ages need to hear about all kind of sex acts, they are told there are 30-something genders,” Walters said. “They are told you can change genders. I believe this is politicization, and it needs to be rejected.”
Another citizen pressed Walters for his stance on “taxpayer dollars being funneled into private schools,” arguing it would hinder equal opportunities for all students and leave students at public schools starving.
“These are taxpayer dollars and they should go to educating children of taxpayers,” Walters said. “We have to get to a situation where every single parent can have opportunities to send their kid to another school.”
Another attendee fought back, citing the Oklahoma Constitution prohibiting public funds to be used for religious institutions, thereby manifesting the separation between church and state.
“The State Supreme Court ruled years ago that when you are giving a voucher or tax credit to a religious school, it’s based on the kids’ education,” Walters said. “As long as there’s an education going on there, it’s legally permissible.”
Another topic mentioned multiple times was low reading scores for individual school districts, such as in Tulsa, with a particular elementary school class having as low as 4 percent reading proficiency.
“We look at our kids’ reading scores and it’s really frustrating to me,” Walters said. “We have to get our kids reading on grade level, we are launching a big reading initiative this fall. That is of the utmost importance.”
Other topics, such as critical race theory or the progress regarding technology and remote learning, also made it to the stage, as well as the current state and the future of education in Oklahoma, with a shortage in teachers being the obvious problem.
“You’ve heard that for two decades now, we don’t have enough teachers, we can’t keep them,” Walters said. “We offered the biggest signing bonus in the country. Now, we already have 800 teachers in our schools that weren’t there last year.”
Walters also talked about a new “teacher empowerment act” that would be launched in September to enable teachers to make significantly more money and stay in the classroom.
“Him being here was a very good idea,” Tiffiney Dimery, an attendee and parent, said after the event. “I think he answered to the best of his ability and cleared up some misconceptions. He addressed all of our concerns.”
Walters agreed, saying that “this is the way we get an education vision and a path forward. I always take a lot away from these meetings. There are a lot of great folks in Lawton, so that enabled me to learn.”