To Comfort The Afflicted
And Afflict The Comfortable

To Comfort The Afflicted And Afflict The Comfortable

Tuesday, June 25, 2024

Observercast

Gov. Stitt: Just Say No

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As the end of the legislative session draws imminently closer, the governor is busy with his pen as bills arrive in his inbox. Stitt has signed most of the bills the Legislature has passed to date, vetoing a number as well. There are a few that are still pending final action in the Legislature that Stitt will receive at the last minute.

The still-pending bill that is most awful for public education in our state consists of Ryan Walters’ proposed administrative rules for the State Department of Education [SDE]. The rules are packaged together in HJR 1059.

FOR WALTERS, IT’S ALL ABOUT BRAGGING RIGHTS

If these rules pass and are signed into law, they will set our schools up for harm, likely result in costly litigation, and reward Ryan Walters’ political ambitions, which seem to be the closest he has to a motivating principle. Unless the worst of these rules is rejected, we can expect the following, chest-thumping boasts:

Walters will claim he has “banned DEI” from the state’s public schools. The rule related to DEI does no such thing. It prohibits specific, extreme practices that are not and almost certainly would not ever be used in Oklahoma’s schools. In other words, the rule bans things that don’t exist in reality. Walters is creating his own reality then pushing a rule against it in order to say he banned what he opposes, as if it were real. It’s a weird deal. It also creates additional paperwork for schools to document that they are in compliance, and tasks SDE staff with micromanaging that burdensome process.

He will claim that he saved religious freedom by requiring, in one of these rules, that every school district implement a policy allowing a “moment of silence” in the classroom – a practice which is already in place in most, if not all, of Oklahoma’s public schools. Similarly, it requires all districts to enact policies allowing “voluntary prayer,” a right which is not in debate and is guaranteed by the constitution. It’s entirely redundant. The rule doesn’t change what is happening in our schools, it simply adds more mandatory reporting. Evidently submitting additional paperwork to the SDE’s bureaucratic black hole is a sign of progress in Walters’ worldview.

Walters will crow he has held back the mythical “woke mob” by banning drag queens from our schools. Actually, though, there is no provision that specifies drag performers in the rule that he put forward. As offensive as that would be, the proposed rule is actually worse than that. It would prohibit employment of any who violate undefined community standards – leaving it up to Walters to decide what is morally unacceptable, what appeals to a “prurient interest in sex” or “excessively promotes sexuality.” All of these completely subjective standards are open to interpretation and enforcement by SDE bureaucrats, the State School Board, and Ryan Walters, whose personal biases will be thinly disguised as “community standards.”

He will proclaim that he is holding schools accountable to “the basics” by tying school accreditation to student performance on standardized tests. This is a bad idea all around, ignoring the demographic realities of many Oklahoma schools. Teachers already face pressures ad absurdum to “teach to the test,” to the point that texting anxiety is a barrier to learning for many students. Schools with high percentages of students with academic challenges need boosts of support, not threats of accreditation deficits. Rural schools whose percentage of student failures on state tests can easily be skewed by poor scores from just a handful of students are also at risk under the provisions of this rule. Walters denies he is out to punish any districts. All we have to do is look at the mayhem he created in Tulsa Public Schools to find grounds for skepticism.

Walters will anoint himself moral champion of the public schools. Perhaps the most outlandish of the rules being considered is the establishment of “Foundational Values” for the Department of Education, and by extension, for all Oklahoma public schools. These values are lifted from Christian education principles. Talk about a lawsuit waiting to happen! The rule in question sets out the objective nature of truth, goodness, and beauty – and by declaring them to be objective, leaves it up to Ryan Walters and his minions to define them according to their own biases and insert them into policy, programs, curricula, and evaluations. The rule goes further by associating these “universal virtues” with “our Creator,” and by discussing the nature of good and evil, declaring them to be “universal rather than relativistic.” The rule charges the SDE to “use its full authority” to operate “in such a way that most fully upholds and protects” these [religious] values.  This language does not belong in state policy, education or otherwise.

FRANKLY, SCARLET …

I don’t know what Ryan Walters believes, spiritually, in his heart of hearts, and frankly I don’t give a damn. What is clear, though, is that he loves to wear the costume of a cultural warrior. His embrace of extremism, his efforts to erode the secular nature of public education that serves people of all faith and non-faith perspectives, and his rabid rhetoric are all getting old and wearing thin. Unfortunately, there has not been much in the way of reining him in.

Against the objections of Democrats on the House Administrative Rules Committee, all of Walters’ proposed administrative rules were endorsed and sent to the House floor where they await a vote. Final Senate action is also pending. It seems likely, though, that the rules will survive not only the committees of both houses, but probably also the floor votes.

That does not mean voters should sit on our hands. Between now and when the floor votes are cast, contact your legislators. Put them on the spot. Ask them to vote against the SDE administrative rules and if they plan to vote in favor of them, to explain clearly why.

Finally, there is little reason to believe that Gov. Stitt is sensitive to ordinary voters’ input. Nonetheless, it would do no harm to send him a message about these proposed administrative rules from the SDE. The message is simple: Gov. Stitt, Just Say No!

Kevin Acers
Kevin Acers
Kevin Acers is a social worker, educator, and poet living in Oklahoma City. He is a former board member of the Oklahoma Coalition to Abolish the Death Penalty and the ACLU of Oklahoma.