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Oklahoma’s public schools are in crisis. We are facing unprecedented teacher shortages, mounting funding deficits and declining student achievement. Our kids, our families and our educators has endured two years of unfathomable trauma.
In the last 900 days, Oklahoma’s kids have lived through a global pandemic that has claimed the lives of more than one million Americans. They have watched as our nation has grappled with an historic movement for racial justice in the face of the killing of Black people at the hands of police. And they’ve bore witness to a rising tide of white nationalism that threatens the very fabric of our democracy.
Now, in this moment, there was opportunity for broad unity in service to our children and their future. We, as a state, had a profound chance to breathe new life into our public schools and work together to build the system of education we deserve.
But those in power at the highest levels of our state chose a different, darker path.
It’s time for common-sense Oklahomans to stand firm and united against these attacks on public education. If not, we may lose our schools into the abyss of growing radicalism.
Extremist ideologies and political agendas harm our kids and public schools
Extremists in our state have long sought an opportunity to strike at the foundation of our education system and defund our public schools. However, time and again, level-headed and focused Oklahomans have banded with parents and educators to stop them.
They stopped them in 2014 when teachers rallied to oust Janet Baressi whose policies favored undercutting traditional public schools. Oklahomans rose up alongside educators again in 2018 to demand higher wages and increased funding. Teachers, business leaders and Oklahomans across the state stood shoulder to shoulder in the Capitol, demanding better for our kids and communities.
However, now, when support for teachers and schools should be at a pinnacle, there is a noticeable void.
And that void, that silence, is being filled with vitriol disguised as an effort to “protect our kids”.
But protect them from what? Mass school shootings? Burgeoning political unrest? The continued spread of an endemic deadly virus?
No. Sadly, many seeking power actively ignore these true threats to instead focus on conspiracy theories.
Oklahoma candidates and national groups push hateful rhetoric to seize political power
“As State Superintendent, I will ban Critical Race Theory, protect women’s sports, and fight for school choice so that all children have access to quality education,” Ryan Walters says in a video announcing his campaign.
“I’ve seen the propaganda Democrats want in our schools,” he continues. “It’s sick. As state superintendent, I’ll crack down on their anti-American curriculum.”
Walters’ campaign is rooted in anti-trans, anti-gay and racially-charged propaganda. He is in a runoff for the GOP nomination against Shawnee superintendent April Grace on Tuesday, August 23rd.
To Walters, the greatest threats facing our children are transgender Oklahomans and anti-racist education. He, and many others, have latched on to baseless claims that schools are “indoctrinating” and “grooming” children. It’s divisive and dangerous rhetoric aimed at enraging a voter base with lies and fear.
And Walters is not alone.
Growing national “parents rights” group focuses on banning diverse books
Moms for Liberty is a national group that formed over the pandemic to “stand up for parental rights at all levels of government”.
Initially formed as a campaign against COVID-19 protocols in schools, the organization has grown to between 70,000 and 100,000 members in nearly 200 counties nationwide.
However, rather than truly advocate for enhanced parental rights, some factions of the group have instead set their sights on fueling a notably radical and far-right political agenda.
Across the country, chapter leaders have fought to ban books that center around anything beyond a White, cis, heterosexual and Christian world view.
In Tennessee, a chapter leader filed a complaint with the state department of education, urging them to remove books about Dr. Marin Luther King, Jr., Ruby Bridges and the leaders of the Civil Rights movement. That same chapter objected to a book on Native American history that “painted white people in a negative light” and a book on Galileo because it was “anti-church”.
Groups across the nation are also attacking literature centering around LGBTQ+ characters.
A Florida chapter of Moms for Liberty fought to ban the critically acclaimed book All Boys Aren’t Blue about a Black queer youth trying to navigate the world. Members of the Broward County chapter in Florida are even on video advocating for separate classes for LGBTQ youth.
Many of these chapters from Moms for Liberty and other groups have also advocated for escalating action against teachers. New Hampshire’s Republican Governor condemned the state’s chapter after it offered a “bounty” on teachers who broke an “anti-CRT” law.
“We’ve got $500 for the person that first successfully catches a public school teacher breaking this law,” a Tweet from the group reads. “Students, parents, teachers, school staff…We want to know! We will pledge anonymity if you want.”
Oklahomans must stand united to protect our kids, our teachers and our schools from extremism
These efforts, launched under the guise of protecting students and supporting parents, have gained ground in Oklahoma.
Vicious discriminatory rhetoric has become increasingly normalized at school board meetings, on social media and, yes, out of the mouths of political candidates. The ultimate aim is to so irrevocably erode trust in our public education system that defunding and dismantling it becomes possible.
Oklahoma ranks near the bottom in the nation for per-pupil funding and educational outcomes. Were the purpose of these efforts to change that reality, then the cries to ban books would be replaced with demand for higher teacher pay and increased resources.
This editorial should not be taken as a call to maintain any form of status quo. It’s anything but.
Underfunded and underperforming system of education disproportionately harms Black, brown and indigenous students. We believe deeply in meaningful reform that is truly aimed at making our public schools stronger for all students. Such reform should be the goal of every Oklahoman.
That is why we feel compelled to make plain the fact these efforts, by design, will not strengthen our public schools. While some supporting certain candidates or groups may hold positive intent, the impact of these collective actions will be devastating.
It’s time to come together and put our kids first again
There is an opportunity to reverse course. There is an opportunity to rally together as one Oklahoma like we did four and eight years ago.
Amid all of the things that divide us, our public education system still unites us.
Our differences fade as we cheer on our kids in a basketball arena or under Friday night lights. Our political ideologies are rendered moot at elementary school plays or high school graduations. Throughout the pandemic, our teachers were the heroes who refused to quit on the students who so desperately needed them.
We find community, opportunity, joy and refuge in our public schools – and we cannot allow that to be taken away. We cannot become so distracted by division that we let it destroy us.
Our kids deserve so much more than that.