Education Bureaucrats Put Students Last | Opinion

Republicans attempting to reform local education systems have encountered resistance even in "red state" redoubts like Oklahoma. Institutional capture enables entrenched bureaucrats to frustrate any effort to root out radical ideologies and mismanagement. It is a microcosm of the national struggle for young American minds.

Oklahoma's education secretary, Ryan Walters, told me about how grassroots activists are working with legislators to push back against critical race theory in classrooms and other areas where learning has taken a backseat to indoctrination. But they've been undermined by recalcitrants in state agencies and school systems. "Parents contact us every week with complaints about material that has been banned," Walters said.

In 2021, Oklahoma adopted House Bill 1775. It restricts K-12 schools from teaching the superiority of one race or sex over another. It also bans instruction that anyone, consciously or otherwise, is inherently racist, sexist, or oppressive and prohibits teaching that "any individual should feel discomfort, guilt, anguish or any other form of psychological distress on account of his or her race or sex," or that "meritocracy or traits such as a hard work ethic are racist or sexist or were created by members of a particular race to oppress members of another race."

HB 1775's sweeping language undermines the key concepts left-wing ideologues use to introduce America's youth to their cults of shame and loathing. It naturally provoked ire from the usual suspects. The American Civil Liberties Union filed a lawsuit complaining the bill would suppress "urgently needed conversations around race, inequity, and systemic oppression." That yelp was echoed by the Black Emergency Response Team and the NAACP Oklahoma State Conference.

The Oklahoma State Board of Education approved permanent rules for HB 1775 in March, giving teeth to its provisions. But that was just the beginning of the fight.

Oklahoma governor Kevin Stitt
Oklahoma Governor Kevin Stitt speaks during a roundtable discussion with US President Donald Trump about economic reopening of closures due to COVID-19, known as coronavirus, in the State Dining Room of the White House in Washington, DC, June 18, 2020. SAUL LOEB / AFP/Getty Images

On June 23, the Oklahoma State Department of Education announced that Tulsa Public Schools (TPS), the largest school district in the state, had violated the new law. Staff there submitted a complaint in March about a training session on implicit bias provided by Vector Solutions, a third-party vendor. Under the state board's new rules, the district's accreditation must be downgraded to "accreditation with deficiency." School districts that are downgraded beyond that level lose accreditation, and and lose all state and federal funds.

At the request of two Tulsa school board members, Governor Kevin Stitt called for a special audit earlier this month over "the potential mishandling of public funds." Stitt noted that on top of the potential HB 1775 violation, TPS received over $200 million in federal COVID relief funds but stayed closed longer than any other district, worsening academic outcomes in an already underperforming district. State testing scores show the percentage of TPS students proficient in math and reading is just 16 percent and 19 percent, compared to the Oklahoma average of 33 percent and 34 percent, respectively.

With the announcement of an audit, tensions between Republican reformers, their allies, and bureaucrats like TPS Superintendent Deborah Gist boiled over on social media. Those tensions were already high, thanks to Gist's insistence on renewing an agreement with a Chinese language program for students via the Confucius Classroom Coordination Institute. Like their college campus counterparts, Confucius Institutes, Confucius Classrooms are affiliated with the Chinese Ministry of Education.

People like Gist have allies in high places, however, including Oklahoma State Superintendent of Public Instruction Joy Hofmeister. Hofmeister announced last year that she was leaving the Republican Party to run for governor as a Democrat. Her decision came after Stitt signed a law banning mask mandates in schools, over which they clashed. There is no solid evidence these protocols reduce the spread of COVID-19, but there is plenty that shows masking in schools profoundly impedes children's social, emotional, and intellectual development.

Under Hofmeister, the state's schools proved to be hubs of resistance against efforts to roll back mandates; Oklahoma City Public Schools fired six teachers in November for not complying with the district's mask requirement amid a staff shortage. The superintendent said she wanted to see the ban "stricken in court." She also claimed the audit is Stitt's way of "retaliating" against detractors, even though TPS has already admitted to mismanaging at least $20,000 in public funds.

"To burn a city," wrote Joseph de Maistre, "there is needed only a child or a madman; but to rebuild it, architects, materials, workmen, money, and especially time, will be required." In other words, it is easy to destroy, but much harder to rebuild—and we often don't know how hard until the task has already begun. Even in Oklahoma, as in other "red states," laws and electoral mandates can be nullified by bureaucrats whose offices do not figure in the minds of most Americans until they are escorted out of school board meetings or when their children are forced to mask. Rebuilding the institutional capacity to enforce change will take time, money, and work. But it is a cause worth its labor.

Pedro L. Gonzalez is the associate editor at Chronicles: A Magazine of American Culture.

The views expressed in this article are the writer's own.