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Everything Is Not OK in Oklahoma Public Schools

Ryan Walters, Oklahoma’s superintendent of public instruction, faces national backlash as he continues to inject his extremist ideology into public school classrooms.

Heading into the 2022 school year, Oklahoma school administrators directed local teachers to remove any books that could cause a student to “feel discomfort, guilt, anguish or any other form of psychological distress on account of his or her race or sex.” This was in accordance with , a newly adopted bill prohibiting race and sex discrimination in public schools.

Instead of complying with the mandate, Summer Boismier, then a high school English teacher, chose to cover her classroom bookcases with red butcher paper adorned with the words, “Books the state doesn’t want you to read.” She also posted a QR code for her students to the Brooklyn Public Library’s Books Unbanned project. Reflecting on her choice, Boismier now says, “I understood that doing my job as an educator could cost me my job, but unlike many others in similar positions, I could afford to take such a risk.”

Ryan Walters
Ryan Walters speaks Tuesday, June 28, 2022, in Oklahoma City. (Photo by Sue Ogrocki/AP)

Following Boismier’s choice to protect her students against censorship, Walters took to his official account on the social media platform X to publicly call for the Oklahoma State Board of Education to revoke Boismier’s teaching certificate, claiming that she provided “access to banned and pornographic materials to students.”

At the time, Walters was the state secretary of education. Boismier says she was immediately inundated online with . She subsequently  Walters for defamation, slander, libel and false representation. Her lawsuit is among seven that have been filed against Walters since 2022, when he was electedsuperintendent of public instruction, the state’s chief education officer who advises the Board of Education.

After eventually resigning her teaching position,  moved to New York, where she now leads teen initiatives at the Brooklyn Public Library. Despite finding a new purpose over 1,000 miles from her home, Boismier says, she suffers from a host of stress-related issues, including post-traumatic stress disorder associated with the personal targeting from Walters.

Boismier still has her teacher’s license in Oklahoma, but the state board of education is scheduled to vote on revocation of her license at its May 23 meeting, she said. “I will almost certainly, at least temporarily, lose my teaching certificate to far-right extremism.”

Walters did not respond to a request for comment.

From ally to enemy

In 2020, Oklahoma Gov. Kevin Stitt nominated Walters to the role of secretary of education, a position in his cabinet that serves as chief adviser on public education. At that time, Walters declared, “First and foremost, I consider myself a teacher.”

As a high school teacher of advanced placement (AP) world history, U.S history and U.S. government, Walters was a student favorite and was a finalist for 2016 Oklahoma teacher of the year.

However, sometime during Walters’ transition from beloved history teacher to superintendent of public instruction, his views took a sharp turn toward the far right. This includes his now hateful rhetoric toward the LGBTQ+ community, calls to whitewash curriculum, efforts to ban books, and attempts to force Christian nationalist ideology into public school classrooms.

“Walters is superintendent of public instruction, and public schools are supposed to serve students of all faiths, backgrounds and identities,” Sarah Kate Ellis, president and CEO of GLAAD, said. “Imagine how a student or family from a marginalized background feels when Walters uses language to exclude, diminish and justify discrimination against them.”

In addition to publicly targeting Oklahoma teachers by name, Walters has taken on teachers’ unions, claiming that they are more focused on indoctrination than education.

Aaron Baker, a 12th-grade government teacher in Oklahoma, has been an outspoken critic of Walters, pointing out the hypocrisy of the indoctrination claims. He told Hatewatch that, while Walters is blaming liberals for indoctrination, “In the same breath, [Walters is] touting the 10 Commandments on the walls and praying in public schools.”

Advocacy group Americans United for Separation of Church and State has called Walters out for inserting his personal religious beliefs into schools. “Walters is definitely using his taxpayer-funded job to infuse his personal brand of fundamentalist Christianity into Oklahoma’s public schools,” Rob Boston, editor of Church & State, a publication of Americans United, said. “His beliefs are rife with Christian Nationalism, the erroneous assertion that the United States was founded to be a ‘Christian Nation’ and its laws should reflect conservative Christian tenets.”

Walters has also made school privatization a priority. During his tenure, he has promoted so-called “school choice,” a euphemism used by the right wing for proposals meant to siphon tax dollars from public schools to private, often religious, ones. “When he was tapped as secretary of education, there were red flags for me,” Baker said. “They weren’t about the culture wars then. The immediate red flags were about privatization and education reform.”

In 2023, Oklahoma  the country’s first religious charter school. St. Isidore of Seville Catholic Virtual School, an online school, will be run by the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Oklahoma City and the Diocese of Tulsa, but will be funded by taxpayer money.

Walters recently took to X to promote the school, posting: “We are proud to have the first religious charter school in the country in Oklahoma. We will always lead in fighting for school choice and religious liberty.” A week later, Walters  that the Oklahoma Department of Education was creating an Office of School Choice.

Walters has also gone after individual schools that are under his purview. When Edmond Public Schools – The Glass Castle by Jeannette Walls and The Kite Runner by Khaled Hosseini – from the district’s three high schools, Walters threatened to downgrade the district’s accreditation, posting on X that “Edmonds Public Schools embrace porn.” He also released an official statement saying, “Edmond Public Schools not only allows kids to access porn in schools, they are doubling down to keep pornography on the bookshelves.”

Edmond Public Schools has filed a lawsuit against Walters, asking the Oklahoma Supreme Court to decide if the authority to establish policies concerning the district’s libraries are those of a local elected school board or the state board of education.

“Walters is dangerous because he advocates policy proposals that are at odds with the very promise of public education. Public schools are supposed to serve everyone, regardless of a student’s race, socio-economic background, nationality, ability, sexuality, gender identity or religious beliefs (or non-beliefs). Walters would privilege white, conservative Christians in the public schools,” Boston said.

The abrupt change in Walters’ views came as a shock to some who knew him before he took office. Shane Hood, who took several AP courses from Walters in high school, has used his TikTok channel to explain why he classifies Walters as a hypocritical “pandering con artist.” According to  about his former teacher, Hood says that even though Walters ran on a platform to keep race-based instruction out of classrooms, as a teacher he was nuanced and staunchly apolitical, teaching his students on such subjects like the psychological effects of segregation.

Walters has not carried these ideals into his current position. For instance, in 2023, when asked how the 1921 Tulsa race massacre fits within the definition of critical race theory, Walters  that the event, which the Oklahoma Historical Society  as “the single worst incident of racial violence,” was not actually about race, saying, “Let’s not tie it to the skin color and say that the skin color determined it.”

Oklahoma state Rep. Jacob Rosecrants was also somewhat surprised by the change in Walters. “I actually knew Ryan Walters before he was state superintendent and while he’s always been pro-private school vouchers, he wasn’t hateful. He began to change right about at the same time he was appointed as Secretary of Education under Governor Kevin Stitt,” Rosecrants said. “I witnessed him repeating far-right talking points (such as social emotional learning being the same as critical race theory) then and also when he ran for state superintendent. I chalked it up to party politics, but he didn’t stop, even once he won the election.”

Hood told Hatewatch that he chose to speak out because, as a teacher, Walters was known for encouraging students to speak their minds and back up their opinions with facts. “I decided to use his teaching style against him, because he taught that hypocrisy is just not a good way to build an argument,” he said. “I knew that my logic, my opinion, my experiences and my facts could be the best weapon against his rhetoric, because those are skillsets that he taught us as students.”

Reign of censorship and hatred

In conjunction with his attacks on the LGBTQ+ community, students of color, equitable opportunities for all students, and inclusive curriculum, Walters has opened the door and welcomed far-right groups into the state’s public schools.

“These types of public affiliations are dangerous not only because of the people involved but also because of what those people normalize,” Summer Boismier said. “The Oklahoma state superintendent is one among many who bears responsibility for the current climate of fear, bigotry, and intolerance that pervades Oklahoma’s schools and affects its future.”

Ryan Walters/Moms for Liberty flyer
Ryan Walters spoke at a Moms for Liberty conference in 2023.

In 2023, Walters endorsed the use of PragerU materials in Oklahoma classrooms. Dennis Prager, the founder of PragerU, which defines its products as a “free alternative to the dominant left-wing ideology in culture, media and education,” spoke at the Moms for Liberty convention last July. He  about a conversation he had with demonstrators outside of the event. “I really wanted to hear what evidence do you have that I am despicable,” he recalled. “And all I heard was, ‘Well, because you indoctrinate kids.’ Which is true. We bring doctrines to children. That’s a very fair statement. I said, ‘But what is the bad of our indoctrination?’”

Yet Walters, who claims to be concerned with the indoctrination of students, has celebrated PragerU, saying that it is “setting the standard for fighting back against woke indoctrination.”

Despite Walters’ steadfast support of PragerU, some Oklahoma school districts publicly stated their intentions not to use the PragerU curriculum. Oklahoma City schools are one such district, : “The endorsement of PragerU by our State Superintendent doesn’t change anything we are doing in the classroom. We trust our teachers to do everything they can to help our students grow. Our instructional staff uses the Oklahoma Academic Standards and we believe that our teachers are the experts.”

Walters has also openly touted his ɾٳ Moms for Liberty, speaking at their conference and appearing at several events with them. Shane Hood said that these associations are one of the things that surprises him most about his former teacher, whom he described as having an “apolitical vigor” in the classroom.

However, Hood said he believes that the Ryan Walters who was his teacher is the true Ryan Walters, not the one who spreads hard-right ideology, pals around with extremists and perpetuates hate speech. “I do believe that Ryan Walters does not actually buy into the whole rhetoric of Moms for Liberty or banning books. This is the same teacher who lent my classmate a copy of the Quran,” he recalled. “Now all of a sudden that he’s involved with Moms for Liberty, and he wants copies of the 10 Commandments and the Bible brought into the classroom. It seems to be a whole 180 from the teacher that I had.”

Ryan Walters and Chaya Raichik
Ryan Walters posted this photo of himself with Chaya Raichik of LibsofTikTok on the social platform X.

Walters has also come under fire for his close affiliation with the anti-LGBTQ+ group LibsofTikTok and its founder Chaya Raichik. Walters recently appointed Raichik to the state’s Library Media Advisory Committee, , “No one has done more to expose what the radical left is all about. … Her’s [sic] is a powerful voice to protect Oklahoma kids from porn in schools and woke indoctrination.”

This move gained immediate responses from critics, who not only pointed out that Raichik does not reside in Oklahoma yet will have a say in what books the state’s students have access to, but also highlighted her  to a rash of bomb threats targeting schools, some in Oklahoma.

“In focusing so much on cozying up to social media trolls, Walters is siding with extremists who have no interest in the safety of students, their education, or a state where everyone can live free from discrimination and hate,” Ellis said.

In August 2023, a post on the LibsofTikTok X account  at Ellen Ochoa Elementary School in Tulsa, Oklahoma. Walters then reposted the message, and the school received a bomb threat that same day and another the following day.

“Walters’ ties to extremist organizations such as Moms for Liberty and individuals such as Chaya Raichik of Libs of TikTok sends a clear message to certain students that they aren’t welcome in Oklahoma’s public schools,” Americans United’s Boston said. “The message Walters is sending is that his right-wing ideology will triumph over the core mission of public education, which is to serve all young people.”

Growing backlash

Walters’ actions have not gone unnoticed by Oklahomans, who Aaron Baker said have been suspicious of Walters since his days as secretary of education. A  from the Human Rights Campaign and Change Research reports that 55% of likely 2024 Oklahoma voters disapprove of his job as superintendent of public instruction. Of those same individuals polled, 52% would like the state legislature to impeach and remove Walters from office.

It is not merely Oklahoma citizens that are supporting efforts to remove Walters. Members of state government are also critics.

“In Oklahoma, impeachment is the only way to remove a state-wide elected official; there’s no recall mechanism. I do agree that Walters should be impeached, not only for his hateful words and actions (which is horrible but isn’t on the list of impeachable offenses), but for his willful incompetence as State Superintendent of Public Instruction here in Oklahoma,” Rosecrants said. “That’s an impeachable offense, and he’s reached that threshold mere months into his time as state superintendent.”

“It’s certainly a big ask to think about impeachment of a position like this. Many of us in Oklahoma you know have been calling for it for months,” Baker said. “Those of us on the ground in Oklahoma have been the noise makers for two years now. And it certainly is welcome that people are making noise nationwide.”

Nex Benedict family photo
Nex Benedict family photo

National organizations have taken notice and joined in the efforts to oust Walters, because they recognize the dangers posed if he remains unchecked. The February death of non-binary Nex Benedict, 16, also prompted  from such advocacy organizations as the Human Rights Campaign and Americans United for Separation of Church and State. “Walters is saying to LGBTQ+ students in Oklahoma: You are not welcome here. We don’t value you. Indeed, we deny your very existence . In particular, Walters has demonstrated a vile antipathy for LGBTQ+ people and is creating a hostile environment for these students,” Boston said. “Americans United launched our petition to remove Walters after this dangerous atmosphere in Oklahoma public schools contributed to the death of 16-year-old nonbinary student Nex Benedict.”

Change.org, which allows activists to gather supporters for specific causes, has  calling for the removal of Walters, the banning of PragerU curriculum in Oklahoma schools, and holding Walters accountable for the death of Benedict, a non-binary Oklahoma teen who reportedly committed suicide after a physical altercation in their high school.

 connecting Walters’ blatant anti-LGBTQ+ campaign to Benedict’s tragic death, which has garnered over 44,000 signatures, claims that “Ryan Walters has spent his time as Oklahoma School Superintendent building a career for himself off the backs of teachers and students, spreading the idea that Oklahoma schools are filled with depraved individuals that groom kids into some mangled woke mold.” It continues: “He has spoken against the LGBTQIA+ community at every opportunity. He has invited far right mouthpieces to take part in the decision making for our schools, leading to religious indoctrination and threats of bombs and other acts of violence directed at Oklahoma schools.”

“Ryan Walters is someone we’ve been keeping an eye on for a while – his anti-LGBTQ+ animus is legendary,” Laurel Powell, spokesperson for the Human Rights Campaign, said. “But our hearts broke along with everyone else’s when he responded to the death of Nex Benedict not with empathy and understanding, but with recrimination and invocation of a ‘woke mob.’” Additionally,  signed by over 300 organizations based in or serving Oklahoma was sent to Oklahoma legislators calling for the immediate removal of Walters from his position and an investigation into the Oklahoma Department of Education to determine what actions and policies have led to a hostile environment for LGBTQ+ students. The list of supporting groups included LGBTQ+ advocacy organization GLAAD, which also  detailing Walters’ dangerous rhetoric and actions as head of Oklahoma public schools.

According to Summer Boismier, failure to remove Walters will result in more of the same. “It is unnecessary to speculate on what could happen because it is happening now. Young people, particularly those from historically marginalized communities, are being told that their stories – and, by extension, their lives – are inappropriate and illicit. It’s never been about the books; it’s always been about the lives behind, between, and before them. That should matter to all of us right now, not just down the line.”

Walters’ surprising transition from dedicated teacher to hard-right leader of Oklahoma’s public schools is not expected to mark the end of his tenure of extremism any time soon. According to Hood, “It seems like he sold out to groups like Moms for Liberty and Libs of Tik Tok to gain their vote and gain his national identity.” His campaign website  a number of non-education related issues, including his stances on abortion, guns and the economy. This is just one of the factors leading opponents to believe that Walters has higher political aspirations.

“He’s clearly trying to use his position in Oklahoma as a launchpad to make himself a national figure,” Boston said. “Walters wants to take his anti-public education, anti-LGBTQ+, pro-censorship agenda nationwide. If he gets that chance, all of America’s children will suffer, not just the unfortunate young people of Oklahoma.

Rosecrants stated that Walters’ actions “are not normal for anybody that I’ve known who has been elected to run a state agency, regardless of party affiliation. These are things that he repeats day in and day out, all because he wants a higher profile job.”

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