Willie R. Tubbs, FISM News
The Oklahoma State Department of Education voted late last week to punish a pair of school districts that it found violated a new state law that forbids the teaching of critical race theory, but the cases are not as straightforward as their punishments might indicate.
At issue is compliance with the state’s HB 1775, which places a strict prohibition on “discrimination on the basis of race or sex in the form of bias, stereotyping, scapegoating, classification, or the categorical assignment of traits, morals, values, or characteristics based solely on race or sex.”
In its most recent meeting, the state board found — each time by a vote of 4-to-2 — that Tulsa Public Schools and Mustang Public Schools had each violated the new law.
As punishment, each district was downgraded from fully accredited to “accredited with warning,” which, according to the language in HB 1775, is a status that states the districts have a fundamental weakness so profound as to be a detriment to the education process.
The law contains language that gives the offending party a year to address its issue or risk more severe sanctions, including being assigned the status of nonaccredited.
Each district’s response is likely to be closely watched as this is the first application of a penalty based on a violation of HB 1775.
Tulsa Public Schools, among the largest districts in the state and a frequent opponent of Gov. Kevin Stitt, is likely to fight its punishment as it alleges that it had not violated the law.
A teacher complained to the state board that the Tulsa district required its faculty to participate in training the teacher said was meant to “specifically shame white people for past offenses in history, and state that all are implicitly racially biased by nature.”
The district said this training was not meant to broad-brush white people and was administered by a third-party vendor.
“In Tulsa, we are teaching our children an accurate – and at times painful, difficult, and uncomfortable – history about our shared human experience,” the district said in a statement acquired by KJRH-TV, an NBC affiliate in Tulsa. “We also teach in a beautifully diverse community and need our team to work together to be prepared to do that well.
“To best do that and also to meet the state’s annual requirement that school districts offer a training about ‘race and ethnic education,’ we provided a training that included the topic of implicit bias. In this training, it is clear there is no statement or sentiment pronounced that people are racist — due to their race or any other factor. We would never support such a training.”
There is some ambiguity with regard to the timing of the Tulsa training. According to CNN, the training was in August 2021 and prior to HB 1775 taking effect. However, it seems the Oklahoma legislature was operating under the belief the law took effect on July 1, 2021, as evidenced by a pair of press releases dated July 8, 2021, and Nov. 17, 2021, respectively.
According to the teacher’s complaint letter, dated Feb. 2, 2022, and available on the Tulsa Public Radio website, the training took place “this semester.” It is unclear if “this semester” means fall or spring.
Mustang Public Schools, located in the Greater Oklahoma City area, is taking a different approach. The district has admitted that one of its teachers instructed students in a lesson that constitutes an HB 1775 violation but argues it addressed the singular issue quickly.
“We were shocked to learn of this action,” Superintendent Charles Bradley said in a statement. “Looking at the agenda item as posted by the State Board, I do not know how a reasonable person could discern that this was coming. We were as surprised as anyone to hear our name mentioned today.”
According to Mustang Public Schools, the district was made aware of the violation in January and, upon investigation, confirmed that a teacher had used an anti-bullying lesson that ran afoul of the regulation.
“Unfortunately, the activity that was chosen in this instance was one that was adapted from and focused on topics not appropriate for our students,” the statement reads. “We eliminated the use of this lesson, effective immediately and moving forward, and regret that it was used at all.”
The Mustang district also stated the lesson in question, which came from a series known as “Crossing the Line,” was not part of the approved curriculum of the State of Oklahoma or Mustang Public Schools.
“We are disheartened that this single outlier event has resulted in this harsh action,” Bradley said. “We acted expediently to resolve the complaint to the complainant’s satisfaction and yet no consideration was given by the State Board to our response to this event.”
According to the Mustang district, the lesson in question was given in a middle school classroom and contained just one question that “violated the spirit” of HB 1775. Specifically, students were asked to take a step backward if they’d “ever been called names regarding your race, socioeconomic class, gender, sexual orientation, or physical/learning disability and felt uncomfortable.”