The Oklahoma Department of Education is threatening to downgrade the accreditation of the Tulsa Public Schools for its recent racial bias training for staff. Oklahoma State Board of Education attorney Brad Clark made this pronouncement to the Oklahoma State Board at its June 23 meeting.
Clark shared with the board that the training ran afoul of House Bill 1775, which became official in 2021 and prohibits public schoolteachers from teaching that “one race or sex is inherently superior to another.” It largely prohibits teaching a wide range of race or sex concepts frequently presented in race or sex sensitivity training, and bans teaching divisive content that make students feel uncomfortable.
The legislatures in Arkansas, Florida, Idaho, Iowa, New Hampshire and Tennessee have passed laws similar to Oklahoma’s HB 1775 that take aim at the critical race theory – a concept that examines the impact of systemic racism on institutions and laws and is rarely discussed outside of law schools and higher education institutions. The critical race theory approach to teaching history, literature and other subjects is not offered in Tulsa Public Schools.
States that currently have bills moving through the state legislature, or are emplacing school policies to forbid the teaching of critical race theory include: Georgia, Alabama, Kentucky, Louisiana, Michigan, Missouri, Montana, Ohio, Pennsylvania, Rhode Island, South Carolina, Texas, Utah, Washington, West Virginia, and Wisconsin, according to World Population Review, which has been monitoring the legislative efforts nationwide.
Critics of HB 1775 said the law – which is facing a lawsuit in Oklahoma – is draconian, political grandstanding.
University of Oklahoma professor Karlos Hill told StateImpact earlier this year, the debate is being leveraged by conservative state lawmakers to energize their base and win elections.
“This critical race boogeyman, this manufactured polarization, is very effective in doing that, but it’s going to have long term disastrous consequences,” Hill said.
A coalition of civil rights groups – backed by the American Civil Liberties Union and the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law – are suing Oklahoma alleging that HB 1775 violates students’ and teachers’ free speech rights and denies people of color, LGBTQ students and girls the chance to learn their history.
In the June meeting, Clark did not cite the specific provisions of the law the Tulsa Public Schools may have violated. Instead, he referred to the “spirit of the training or design of it.”
He further announced to the Oklahoma Board of Education he was recommending the district’s accreditation be downgraded to “accredited with deficiency.” The district has about 33,000 students, 23% of whom are Black – whose education will be affected by the Oklahoma Department of Education’s actions.
Veil Of Secrecy
At the May 26 board meeting, Clark told the board members a complaint was filed to the state involving “professional development training to school district employees” provided by a third-party vendor, Vector Solutions based in Cincinnati, Ohio. However, in the video footage of the meeting, Clark neither publicly stated which school district was under investigation from the complaint nor provide any further specifics.
At the June 23 meeting, he said the investigation had been completed. He only named Tulsa Public Schools while under questioning from board members. The Tulsa investigation did not appear by name on the agenda or in publicly posted handouts for the meeting.
The Oklahoma Eagle requested from the Oklahoma Department of Education a copy of the complaint and the letter notifying the school district of the alleged infraction. Leslie Berger, the state department’s assistant executive director of communication, referred the Eagle to the Open Records Request application but stated, “No action has been taken yet on this item.”
The State Board of Education is scheduled to take action on all Oklahoma schools’ accreditation at its July 28 meeting. This will include Tulsa and the possible punitive action.
Other Measures Available
The State Board of Education has options to take more severe actions. It may depend on which of the eight prohibited concepts have been violated. These concepts range from “an individual… bears the responsibility for actions committed in the past by other members of the same race or sex” to someone “feeling discomfort, guilt, anguish, or any other form of psychological distress on account of his or her race or sex” as a result of the education or training. While technically, state officials have at their discretion, a three-year span of penalties from deficiency to probation to nonaccreditation, the regulations provide this progression of steps is “at a minimum.”
The State Board of Education could also punish Tulsa Public Schools for violating its rules enforcing the law. These rules also “shall apply” to individuals who could be suspended or have “the license or certificate of any school employee” revoked.
A school district in Oklahoma is also prohibited from “executing contracts or agreements” that incorporate these concepts in training, as alleged in the Tulsa case. None of these other punitive measures were cited by the Board attorney in his terse summary of the case on June 23.
Tulsa Public Schools
It is unclear whether the Tulsa Public Schools will fight the charges. Clark told the Oklahoma State Board that district officials cooperated in the investigation and had purportedly agreed to modify its training program.
In a statement to the Eagle, Tulsa Public Schools said:
“We hold hundreds of educator professional development opportunities each year. To meet the state’s annual requirement that school districts offer a training about ‘race and ethnic education,’ we provided an implicit bias training created by Vector Solutions. Vector is a national company that works with school districts across the country.
“In March 2022, one individual made a complaint about this training, and the Oklahoma State Department of Education has made us aware of their finding of a deficiency related to that complaint. We anticipate receiving a written explanation of the deficiency within the next few weeks.”
A July 28 meeting is planned in which more information could be released whether the Tulsa school board and the district will bend to or challenge the state law that critics say deprives the educational system of the tools it has commonly used to educate and quell bias toward minorities.
John Neal, the author, is a former resident of Sand Springs. He is well versed in urban renewal, its uses and abuse, as a former City Manager in Oklahoma and Departmental Consultant for the City of El Paso, Texas. In 2008 he was that City’s Planning Director when the city won multiple awards for its planning accomplishments. He is now retired and resides in Austin Texas.