Oklahoma is taking a lead on school choice programs and resisting far-left ideology in classrooms across the state.
“It is amazing how aggressive the Biden administration is with this radical agenda towards our schools,” Ryan Walters, Oklahoma’s state superintendent of public instruction, says. When he came into office, Walters says he told staffers there, “We’re not doing diversity, equity, and inclusion. We’re not doing that here.”
The leftist agenda in schools has gone well beyond DEI instruction, and now the Biden administration is considering changing the definition of sex in Title IX to include gender identity and sexual orientation, opening the door wide for biological boys and men to compete in girls and women’s sports and to use their restrooms and locker rooms.
“We’ve already submitted comment to the Biden administration and told them, ‘We’re suing you if you move down this road,’” Walters said.
Walters joins “The Daily Signal Podcast” to explain the ways Oklahoma is fighting against the Left’s efforts to influence the next generation in the classroom and to discuss the state’s aggressive action to implement school choice programs.
Listen to the podcast below or read the lightly edited transcript:
Virginia Allen: We are joined today by the Oklahoma state superintendent of public instruction, Ryan Walters. Ryan, thank you so much for being here today.
Ryan Walters: Hey, I’m very excited to be here. Thank you for having me.
Allen: Well, this is a big topic, education—discussing what exactly is happening across the country with education and specifically in your state of Oklahoma.
But before we dive too far into the weeds, I want to ask you, how did you first get involved in the field of education?
Walters: So, for me, I wanted to be a teacher going all the way back to when I was in grade school. I had a history teacher that really inspired me. We were talking in sixth grade about the Civil War, and about Abraham Lincoln, and about how he had this kind of inner strength and I got obsessed with history. I wanted to learn all I could. And so, I wanted to be a teacher.
So I go back, I’m a public school teacher in a rural school in Oklahoma, down in McAlester, Oklahoma. And as time went on, I began to see [that] our education system does not work for all kids. We have a system that treats all kids as if they’re the same. It is it very mechanic in that it doesn’t allow for individuals to kind of find their own path for success. I was concerned about the low expectations that I was seeing in our schools.
And I saw a system that didn’t reward teachers. It didn’t incentivize being a great teacher. It was very socialist in so many of the concepts. And you look in every other type of industry, they’re innovating, they’re trying to put all the financial incentives for innovation, and education just wasn’t.
And so, I went on from that to nonprofit and began working to support parents and push for change in our education system. And then I was appointed to be the governor’s education adviser.
And then from that point on, I won a statewide election to be the state superintendent of Oklahoma. And we are moving absolutely as fast as we can to get an education system that’s gone so far off track in the right direction.
Allen: Well, when we talk about that education system that has gone off track, it’s really easy to talk about the problems and talk about the issues. I’ve sat in the studio many times and talked about some of those really large issues facing the education system with individuals from across the country.
And one of the themes when you start talking about solutions that always comes up is that of school choice. And I know that you are an advocate for school choice. You said earlier this year that Oklahoma must and will have the most expansive school choice program in the country.
How is that process going, of moving forward with school choice in your state?
Walters: Right. I mean, we have to have school choice. I mean, the reality is, when we talk about education, we talk about those problems. I just kind of did it at a super high level right there.
But the fact that we have an education system that doesn’t meet the needs of all learners—we can go through the woeful [National Assessment of Educational Progress] scores. We can go through the lack of having folks ready when they graduate to enter college or enter any kind of industry.
But what you see here is, you see an education system that has routinely pushed against any change. And the ultimate change, the ultimate way to empower individual kids and to really get parents involved, is school choice. And the reality is, we have these new innovative options that can occur.
You have teachers that want to think more outside the box. You have systems that can come in and look completely different, if we start funding students and not systems, if we start ensuring that kids are the foundation of everything we do. That means paying for the child and allowing that child and their family to determine what their education looks like. That has to happen.
Without that, you have no incentive for excellence to occur in education, for the needs of every learner to be met.
Frankly—and I tell this to teachers all the time, being a public school teacher myself. For teachers—you want me to tell you what happens when you have universal school choice? … Guess what parents really want for their kids? I’ve got four little ones at home. So I’ve got a 7-year-old, a 5-year-old, a 3-year-old, and a 1-year-old. So, I’ve got a 7- and a 5-year-old in school. You want that great teacher for your kid.
School choice, money following the kid, also incentivizes schools to keep their great teachers because they know that’s what’ll attract parents to their schools. It has to happen.
This is one of these fundamental changes that, when we get away from the teachers union mentality of just paying for buildings, “Just guarantee us we get this money every year,” and we turn it into, “Actually, this is going to be tied to whether the parents are happy with the education their kids are getting,” it is a fundamental game-changer in education.
In Oklahoma, we are pushing a universal school choice bill for every family. Everyone. I’ve made very clear, we’re not carving anybody out. I mean, just think about the absurdity of these half measures. It has to be every kid, it has to be every parent has access to all of their funds and can send them to a private school, a homeschool, whatever is best for their kids.
And frankly, that should always be our plumb line. That should always be what we come back to. “What is the best thing we can do for kids?” And there’s no doubt about it, school choice is what’s best for kids.
Allen: And what does the timeline look like as far as Oklahoma moving forward and passing legislation that will allow that universal school choice?
Walters: This session, the speaker’s passed out of his chamber a universal school choice measure. We have a more limited one that passed out the Senate.
And we’re in negotiations right now. We’ve got a great governor in the state of Oklahoma, Gov. Kevin Stitt. He is a huge champion of school choice. And so, between the Senate, the House, him, and myself, we’re going to keep pushing, “It’s got to be every kid. We’ve got to make sure that we’re not carving folks out.”
And so right now, we are in the final stages of negotiating that. I have a lot of confidence it’s going to get done. But for any of your listeners in Oklahoma, let your legislators know, “Hey, we don’t want carve-outs. We think that every kid matters. We think every parent should have universal school choice in the state. And we want to be a leader.”
I mean, I’m passionate about ensuring that, as a state, we have put our kids in the position to be the most successful state in the country.
And we’re seeing other states doing this. It’s incredible what [Florida Gov. Ron] DeSantis has done, what [Arkansas Gov. Sarah] Huckabee Sanders is doing. We’ve seen these successes. We need, though, this as a country. And I do appreciate [that] President [Donald] Trump made this a top priority. He came in and talked about school choice, “Every state should have it.”
We’ve really come a long way, but we’ve got to get the wins.
And that’s the other thing. As conservatives, we need to talk about it. We’ve got to win people over and explain to them the cause, and then we’ve got to go get it done.
So, we are focused on getting this across the finish line in Oklahoma.
Allen: Well, one of the other issues that I know you’re very passionate about and that you want to see Oklahoma really leading on is pushing back against the Biden administration and its proposed rule change to Title IX.
So Title IX, of course, protects equal opportunities for women and girls within education, including in sports. Well, now, the Biden administration, they want to change the definition of sex within Title IX to include sexual orientation, gender identity.
You-all are pushing back in Oklahoma. Talk a little bit about what you-all are doing.
Walters: It is amazing how aggressive the Biden administration is with this radical agenda toward our schools. When I first came into office, I had my agency, I said, “Hey, we’re not doing diversity, equity, and inclusion. We’re not doing that here.”
And they started flagging for me, “Well, we need to talk about these grants because the Biden administration keeps adding additional criteria to grants we’ve gotten for years that are basic math and science. Now, they’re adding in these diversity, equity, and inclusion components.”
So, we saw that initially, and then this radical overstep to say, “We are going to, unilaterally here, at a whim, change Title IX to say that states, you’re going to risk federal funding if you don’t allow boys that say they’re girls to participate in girls sports.”
So we passed a law in our state that said we weren’t going to allow that to happen. And so initially, I’ve come out, and we’ve already submitted comment to the Biden administration and told them, “We’re suing you if you move down this road. The minute that you institute this new rule change, you will be sued by myself and by all the power that I have, to say, ‘We will not do this in Oklahoma.’ You will not hold our kids hostage. You will not endanger our girls by saying we want to start not only allowing them to compete, but it brings up the entire question of separation between the two sexes in that capacity, in athletics.”
And we’re seeing this professionally. We’ve seen a UFC fighter break the skull of a female, and it’s a man that says he’s a woman. This radical ideology is dangerous. It is dangerous.
And my daughter, my oldest, already wants to be a tennis player. She takes tennis lessons. Think about, if we don’t act on this, our young girls—and we’ve seen it all over the country. That work their whole life to get to a state tournament, to have an opportunity to win.
And think about, there’s so many cool, “I’m a former coach. I’m a basketball coach and a tennis coach.” All of those cool lessons that you can learn from dedication to work ethic, that you get from sports. And for us as a country to come to a point where our president says, “Hey, forget all that. We’re more worried about the self-esteem of this boy that now says he wants to be a girl and go compete.” And boom, “Hey, go out there and win the track state tournament. Go out there and beat these girls in tennis, or basketball, or volleyball.”
It is absurd. It is insane that we have reached a point where [President] Joe Biden is threatening the states to force them to take boys in girls sports.
And hey, we’re not going to do it. We’re going to sue them. We are absolutely not going to implement it. We have been very direct. I’ve been working with some other states. We’ve got great superintendents of instruction in Florida, South Carolina, and other states. We talk and we’re banding together. We’re actually meeting later today.
We are going to fight back and we are not going to give up our kids, we’re not going to give up our schools, to this woke agenda of the Biden administration. And that’s the reality. They want to control the schools and they want to control your kids.
Allen: I want to ask you to speak for a moment from the perspective of teachers. You were a teacher, you interact with so many teachers, and teachers are often the ones who are being asked to teach this woke ideology, to embrace it. And many of them, that’s not what they signed up to do. They signed up to instruct and educate kids.
When you talk to our teachers, what do they say that they need?
Walters: That’s a great question, and that is one of the things that, it’s funny how the fake news media don’t report that part of recruiting teachers. I hear from teachers all the time.
We had mandatory sex ed classes that were to be taught in Tulsa public schools in Oklahoma, our biggest school district, that were pushed. And the teachers go, “Hold on, this is not your typical sex ed. This is graphic. This is way—I don’t want to do that. I came here to teach biology. I came here to teach physical science.” And the teachers go, “They shut down our classroom for weeks to come teach this to our kids.” And they go, “Hey, we’re leaving. As soon as I can get out, I’m getting out.”
And I hear this from teachers all over the state that say, “Listen, we came to teach our subject matter. We love kids, we want to help kids. We love math, or English.” They always tell you their stories and go, “The more that you’re going to push me to do things that, first of all, I don’t agree with, second of all, have nothing to do with what my core role is as a teacher, I’m going to get out.”
And I’m going to tell you the other thing. So, they’re pushing this woke ideology. You have administrators. And the administrators get together, and it’s almost like the “Woke Olympics.” They are almost competing with each other of, who can be the furthest left administrator? So, you’ve got that dynamic.
And the other thing is, with the woke ideology, they’ve also mixed in here—and you hear this from teachers all the time. “Hey, when a kid acts up or misbehaves, he’s a victim, so you just got to let him do it. You’ve just got to let them.”
You know, it’s the victim mentality. It’s like I said at the beginning, the lack of high expectations both on academics and on student behavior. This comes from that left-wing ideology that, “Hey, we have victim groups. There’ll always be victims. We have oppressors. There’ll always be oppressors.”
So they build that into a system and teachers go, “Well, what am I supposed to do when Johnny is throwing an eraser at my head, saying things that I would never say. And I’m told, ‘Well, you’ve got to let Johnny be Johnny. We don’t want to discipline him, it could hurt their self-esteem’?”
That is part of what the Left—and even in red states, we have allowed the Left to push into our schools.
I’m going to give you one more. I’m pushing for performance and merit-based pay in Oklahoma, and we’re going to do it. We’re launching some over the summer, some of these programs. We want it across the board where, “Hey, when you’re a great teacher and you show that and you exhibit that, boom, you should get pay raises based on that.”
Guess what? The teachers union fights it every time. Frankly, we have a lot of administrators that fight it. “Well, how do we pick who the best teachers are?” I go, “You name a teacher, teacher of the year in most of your districts. Hey, you’re fine with a performance-based pay raise.”
We have some administrators that get $60,000 performance pay increases, but yet we can’t do that for our teachers?
We’ve created a system that’s socialist in nature. “Hey, teachers, it doesn’t matter how good you do, it doesn’t matter how bad you do, it doesn’t matter how engaged you are. It doesn’t matter what you’re doing in your classroom, you’re going to make the same amount every year.”
And when you do that, it goes against basic human nature. The more we incentivize excellence, the more excellence we’re going to get. And the more that we allow a union mentality in our schools, the more you’re going to see the radical ideology push, and the more you’re going to see no incentive for excellence. And so, you’re going to get less of it.
Allen: Oklahoma Superintendent Ryan Walters. Ryan, thank you for your time today. We truly appreciate it and truly appreciate the encouragement as well.
Walters: Absolutely. Thank you for having me and thank you so much for the work you guys are doing. You guys are doing a tremendous job. Heritage is one of the best foundations in the country.
You guys do tremendous work, so I’m very excited to be here. And thank you so much for all you’re doing.
Allen: Oh, thank you.
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