This back-to-school season, parents across the country have something new on their supply list: agency over their child's education. The woke elites in charge of America's education system want to destroy children's innocence, parents' rights, and communities' authority over their schools. In these fights, Oklahoma State Superintendent Ryan Walters is on the front lines.
Oklahoma State Superintendent Ryan Walters taught eight years as a high school history teacher in his hometown at McAlester High School. During his time at MHS, Walters taught Advanced Placement courses in World History, U.S. History and U.S. Government. He also taught on-level history classes, special education classes and Advancement Via Individual Determination (AVID) classes. The Oklahoma State Department of Education named Walters as an Oklahoma Teacher of the Year Finalist in 2016.
Previously, Walters was appointed as Secretary of Public Education for the State of Oklahoma by Governor Kevin Stitt in September of 2020 where he oversaw various agencies, boards and commissions, including the State Board of Education, College and University Boards of Regents or Trustees, Office of Educational Quality and Accountability and the State Board of Career and Technology Education.
Ryan Walters: I’m going to do all I can to return our education system to a place where you are truly in charge of your child’s education. That means School Choice, that means decisions around curriculum. That means transparency, where you can see where dollars are spent.
Kevin Roberts: Welcome back to the Kevin Roberts Show. I’m so glad that you are tuning in for this conversation, which you will love for a whole lot of reasons. One of them is we know that two-thirds of the way through this year, it’s kind of silly season in the United States. Any way you slice it, whether you’re looking at politics or some other facet of American society or culture, you’re probably wondering is there hope for the future. Well, you know on this show, we believe there’s hope, and we try to introduce you to men and women who are providing that with their leadership.
You’ll understand this week that this guest, of course, is doing that. And thirdly, you know that in addition to saying that there’s hope, we also want to give you the plan. It’s not enough just to say, “We ought to have hope.” We ought to ask the question, “What’s the plan?” And so all of that to say, this is a conversation that I have really been looking forward to because you know my biggest passion in public policy is education, and that’s because I’m a fifth-generation educator. So my new friend, the Superintendent of Education in the great State of Oklahoma, and I say that as someone who, of course, loves Texas, but I love Oklahoma too, Ryan Walters, thanks for being here.
Walters: Thank you having me on. Dr. Roberts. I appreciate all the work you’re doing, and always awesome to be around The Heritage Foundation for sure.
Roberts: All kidding aside, because we were doing some joshing about your Oklahoma State Cowboys and my Texas Longhorns, all of that kidding aside, it is always a great day when there’s an Oklahoman inside The Heritage Foundation.
Walters: Yes. I appreciate that. It’s awesome to be here.
Roberts: Yeah. So I tell that to your governor, he said, “Well, does that mean you’d stop pulling for the Longhorns?” I says, “No, sir, there’s no way.” But we’re going to get into a conversation about education. And truly, although we’ve just met in person, I and my colleagues at Heritage have followed you during your entire tenure because not just your right policies and not just your courage.
But your cheerfulness as you’re engaged in those battles, and they often are battles on behalf of Oklahoma kids and families. And so thank you for that. But I’m going to ask you the question that I try to start with, especially for policymakers. How in the world did you decide that you wanted to be the Superintendent of Education, and what was the path to getting there?
Walters: Well, it really started for me, I wanted to be a teacher from when I was 14 years old. I was in a US History class. I had one of those incredible history teachers that just made history come alive, and I can remember the lesson. It was about Abraham Lincoln, and it was about how Abraham Lincoln knew he was taking positions that were unpopular in a large part of the country, but he knew that keeping the union together was going to be viewed by history as being the right position. And I just remember thinking, “Man, to be grounded in principle like that to know it could cost you an election to know that there’s all these issues swirling. But to really be grounded in a core belief, it stood out to me.” I want to have that influence on kids like he had on me.
So I went down the path to become a teacher, love teaching, but it doesn’t take you very long as a teacher to see the frustrations that the system creates. So, as a public school teacher, being able to teach history, I began to see more and more of a frustration from my colleagues, from myself, from parents on an education system. It doesn’t work well for kids, and it frankly doesn’t work well for teachers either. And so it took me down a path towards, well, what policies could correct this? And the more I verbally spoke about these policies out loud and publicly, the more backlash I got from the education establishment if you will. And it just showed me we’re so far off base in the way that we educate kids.
I can go out and talk to an Oklahoman at a diner, and they get it, and they get what the problems are, but for some reason, when you cross over into a school, they reject free market principles. So many times, I feel like they reject common sense. And so, as time went on, I kept taking further and further steps to try to be more engaged and helping with that problem, and having four young kids, it really is personal to me as well. I want parents to go through their life feeling like their kids have every opportunity to be successful. And eventually, that led me into running for this position and trying to move forward as quickly and with as much urgency as possible to improve our education system for our kids.
Roberts: Well, and that mindset you just mentioned about moving with urgency has been your calling card. How long have you been in office?
Walters: I’ve been in office nine months.
Roberts: And does it feel like nine years?
Walters: It’s been a long time, but I feel like we’re just getting started.
Roberts: Yeah. I mean, I don’t... it wasn’t a leading question to suggest you would complain about Oklahomans, but perhaps a leading question about the forces we know that are arrayed against the reform that you’ve brought to the table, right.
Walters: Oh, absolutely. The teacher’s union was mobilizing before my inauguration to have all these pushbacks ready to launch attack ads and to try to stage walkouts and things like that. And the reality has been Oklahomans have embraced the change, the reform. This is what they’ve asked for. Again, I always tell people, “This is a reflection of what parents have told me a thousand times on the campaign trail.” And so much of what we see is common sense. And that’s what I try to always articulate too, is when you look at your kid, everybody wants to believe that when they drop their kid off at the bus stop in the morning.
And I always try to do that. My youngest daughter, she has an early bus, so it’s like 6:00 AM. So I get to do that a lot of days where I get to take her. And it’s exciting when you have that great education experience where your child’s excited to go to school. You as a parent, you hate being away from them during the day, but you feel good about it. And so that’s been my push is to continue to say, “We can get there,” where parents can have that feeling and feel like their kids God-given talents are being realized. But it takes drastic change. And I think of this honestly with everything.
When you look at governance right now where the country is, we’ve got to move with that sense of urgency because we know what government does. It slows down any kind of reform. It kills anything that undermines its authority and its power. So you have to act swiftly. It has to be with a sense of urgency. And in education, I feel even more called to that because these are kids. I mean, I use the statistics a lot, but those statistics represent individual kids that, I mean, they could either be taking the path towards that success or, frankly, it could be a sharp turn in the other direction. So we have to have that urgency.
Roberts: And it ought not be such a politicized issue, right. I’ve said for years, going back to when I was in the classroom myself, that even though I had my own ideological biases, that education generally, but each of our respective subjects, history in our cases, that these shouldn’t be politicized, but it’s the radical left that has politicized it, and it’s forced those of us who might certainly be conservative but otherwise would keep those ideologies at bay to engage them. And I want to talk about some of those fights that you have had really, not even so much liberal versus conservative, but common sense against what isn’t common sense.
So before we get to that, though, I’m curious about your first surprise on the job. You come into office. We were following your campaign. We can’t get involved in campaigns. We were following your campaign. We knew that once you were elected, even before you took the oath of office, teachers, unions, and so on were going to come after you. That’s when Heritage started following, and I said, “Man, if they’re saying that about this guy, he’s got to be a great guy.” So you have certain expectations. No doubt we all do when we’re starting a new job. What was the first surprise, even in spite of what you were expecting?
Walters: It was a surprise, in a sense, but I did expect it of coming into a government agency how many employees in the agency are going to undermine the work being done. I mean, we dealt with that on a daily basis of leaks coming out of the agency of them literally trying to undermine things. We have recruited over 800 teachers to the State through our Signing Bonus Program. We literally had our own employees trying to undermine the Signing Bonus Program for teachers to recruit them to the State.
And so it was one of those things that, it’s amazing to me when you’re a leftist ideolog bureaucrat. I mean, hey, of course, they’re advocating for things like indoctrination in schools and things like that, but they were willing to undermine projects that were... I mean, I don’t know how you argue with recruiting teachers of the classrooms, but that was the thing of trying to get control of an agency that had been... We had a liberal in there before me, so it was just there were all these kind of landmines they set for us, but that was something we had to navigate right out of the gate.
We really did a good job of handling it really quickly. But of course, when you have a press corps that is doing all they can to undermine your administration, that was really how we jumped off and got started, and we didn’t let it get in the way of, we wanted to pass Universal School Choice right off the bat. That was a promise I’d made from day one is, “I will do everything in my power to get this done.” And so we got that victory out of the legislature despite all of the angst and distractions from the teacher’s union and kind of the left wing forces that were at play there. But that was our thing is just address it directly.
We had some fun with it too, with the media, and we just kind of continued to say, “Look, we’re not going to be deterred. We’re not going to slow down. You’re not going to distract us. We have been really clear with Oklahomans that we’re not going to allow left-wing activists, the teacher’s unions to stop these things.” And I think when you speak real directly to, and that’s one of the things that I get this criticism from the media and frankly, even some Republicans that come out and go, “I mean, yeah, you talked about it on the campaign trail, but why are you still talking about it?” And I go, “Guys because I mean what I say.” I mean...
Roberts: Otherwise you wouldn’t say it.
Walters: Right. I guess I didn’t get the memo, right, that you’re... Do some of you just believe you’re going to just lie to the electorate and then do the opposite when you get in but apparently that is.
Roberts: The answer to that superintendent is yes.
Walters: It’s like, “Well, I’m sorry, guys. That’s not my playbook here. So when I said is what I meant, and everyone’s going to see that I’m going to try to, with a sense of urgency, carry these things out because this is what Oklahomans deserve.” And so we just continue to take that approach of just really direct with Oklahomans on what the plans are, what the vision is that aligned with what we sell on the campaign trail. And so it’s been very exciting.
Roberts: So I’m fascinated by the fact that you ran on promoting Universal School Choice, and you’ve done that. I want to talk about some of the ins and outs of that. But I would imagine that you got some hard questions along the way as you’re... Just I’ve heard this in state after state with other superintendent or commissioner friends, and the question goes something like this, you’re responsible for public education, Ryan Walters. How can you be an advocate for Universal School Choice? What was your answer?
Walters: Got that a lot. And-
Roberts: I can see you’re ready to go to answer it.
Walters: Absolutely. I got that a lot. And I will say this too. These positions, these school chiefs, when they’re elected in a lot of states, I will tell you a lot of them, they caved to that position really quickly because teachers unions, administrators associations, hey, they may get involved in some other races. Well, this is one of their major races. And just to walk everyone through that, hey, in a state, you can pass a really great conservative reform. But in a lot of states, guess whose job it is to actually carry that out with accountability measures and consequences? It’s your State Department of Education.
So, in our state, all these groups, they spend a lot of money to ensure that the person in my seat will never hold an administrator accountable will never hold a school district accountable. And so instantly, there was a lot of money spent against us, a lot of pushback. But I went right into these areas, and I’ll tell you one in particular of the way I handled it. I was in an editorial meeting with a very liberal newspaper in Oklahoma, and they didn’t endorse me. I just couldn’t believe it. But we go through the interview, and they keep going, “We can’t back a candidate that doesn’t just support public schools, and you shouldn’t even be talking about private schools.”
And luckily, we were kind of on the fourth story or something like that in their building, and I looked out, and I go, “I’m going to tell you why I’m running. I’m running for every single child out there. Now you’re trying to tell me that I should only be representing the children right here, not the ones that attend that private school right there. Well, I don’t cut kids out. Okay. I go and support every single child. I want all of them to be successful. There’s no nuance to that. There’s no carving out groups of kids. So I will always advocate for every child. I will also advocate for taxpayers, and their ability to determine where kids go to school should be up to them.” And I’m going to tell you, I never shied away from it. They always try to scare rural towns of, it’s going to shut down your schools.
And I did town hall after town hall, and I walked them through it, and I said, “Look, I believe in you as a parent. I’m not going to ever undermine that. I’m going to do all I can to return our education system to a place where you are truly in charge of your child’s education. That means School Choice. That means decisions around curriculum. That means transparency, where you can see where dollars are spent.” And again, our rural communities, people always talk about School Choice. Well, the rural areas get really [inaudible]. I think you have to be real clear with them and just talk everyone through it. And we cut through those fear tactics.
Roberts: Tell us about that legislation getting passed in the legislatures, one of the big wins for the entire Conservative Movement... beyond the Conservative Movement for kids in this last year.
Walters: Right. Yeah. We ran into trouble for years of trying to get it through our legislature. Our Senate would pass School Choice measures and really push them in our House. It was constantly getting blocked there. And so we finally... Again, the public messaging is so important. I think really defining it for people of what’s at stake here. And we talk about it. I love to talk about the individual sense. I love to tell the stories. I had a mother call me, and just crying on the phone got me emotional on the phone talking about her daughter trapped in a failing school after her nephew had been shot and killed outside the school the year before.
And so she’s telling me, “Look, this is about academic success and getting a job.” But she’s literally crying to me on the phone about, “I’m concerned for the safety of my daughter.” And I always tell people, I go, “The answer to that question or that statement from that mother to me is always the same. I will do anything in my power to help you get your kid to the school that you want your child to be at.” And really telling these stories. But also, I was really clear with Oklahomans, and we really pushed this across the State of if we do not create an education system that has free market incentives, the ceiling is low. It just is. I mean, we can have great standards.
We can really massage teacher professional development and things like these, and those things are important, but the ceiling will always be low because the entire system isn’t built around incentives that are aligned with human nature. And so what this does is it creates an environment for us to have success. And folks, if we don’t do this, you’re going to be hearing this for years and years to come. You’re always going to have someone. And again, I told them, I go, “Look, when I’m campaigning out here saying we’re 49th in reading in the country in fourth-grade reading, I mean, I don’t want to come back and tell you that in four years. I want to be able to come back and say, ‘Hey, guess what? We’ve made a significant improvement. Here’s where we rank now.’ But the only way that happens, the only way we give ourselves a fighting chance, is to open up a system to where you actually align incentives to human nature and create a system where excellence comes to the top.”
And so we were really clear on that. We really went out. Hey, we went around the State. I started off the year traveling to rural areas and bringing legislators in and going, “Guys, we’re going to come right out and host these events, and we’re going to talk to people, and we’re going to tell them, ‘This has got to be the path forward.’“ And I think being really public, really having those arguments in rural areas to let them know, “Hey, we’re going to walk you through it. Here’s how we think it’ll work out here. Here’s what we think the future can look like with Universal School Choice.” And again, parents want this. I think that we can’t be afraid of the scare tactics, the fear tactics. We’ve got to go out there and sell the message. And again, parents resonated with it.
Roberts: I love that response. Thanks for the thoroughness of that. I want to piggyback on that and ask a follow-up question about the rural element of this because people who live in states without the large swaths of rural areas like Oklahoma or Texas can’t fully appreciate the political problem that it has been for the Republican Party, which has unfortunately been the only of the two major political parties pushing Universal School Choice with rural legislators.
And the difficulty just to summarize it is that, for the most part, these legislators in Oklahoma and Texas elsewhere are with us on every other issue. But on that one, it’s really hard. You overcame that in Oklahoma and Heritage, I, personally, both are really involved in the Universal School Choice fight in Texas, which may happen in October in a special session. A key part of that is not just berating, not berating rural voters or legislators but talking to them, having conversations with them. What are the lessons you learned in Oklahoma that we can transfer to the South, to Texas, and to other states?
Walters: I had a meeting that turned out really crystallized this with me of when I was out campaigning I went out to Clinton, Oklahoma, really, really small rural town out there, great folks. And I had a lot of school administrators in the room. They knew I was coming, so they packed this room out. And I had a lot of... there was a group of farmers there. There were a group of parents and some downtown business owners. It was quite an interesting group, but I’d say about half the group was the school administrators that showed up. And man, they were just coming ready to, “Hey, School Choice, you’re going to destroy our district, and you’re going to destroy our school, and it’s going to fall apart.” And so I went in there and addressed all that and went through everything I just laid out. And I had a farmer in the back.
He raised his hand. He goes, “Hey, I’m just going to say it. So my son, we have a family industry. We’re involved in agriculture. He said, and that’s what he wants to do. And he’s really excited about it. My kid’s school though, he’s really frustrated with it. He’s a bright kid, but he knows what he wants to do. He really loves working with his hands. He really loves the family business, and he wants to know more about technology, and he really... But he’s not getting that at school. And I’ve talked to the school, and he’s talked to the school, and I mean, they’re holding him back. I mean, he could be out working and doing these things.” And I said... And he goes, “So I understand 100% what you’re saying. We’ve got to have...” And I said, “Sir, that’s exactly what I’m saying, is that you should be able to send your kid to a different school if you so choose.”
And again, the options are really unlimited here. I mean, it could be this project-based learning that has him out working on this technology. It could be a private school down the road. It could be some homeschooling element. It could be a virtual school. We have some rural charter schools in the State of Oklahoma that we’re very excited about as well. But that to me was seeing that resonate with him of saying, “Why is it I’m sitting here, and I’ve been so involved with my kid? He wants to be involved in the family business. And yet we’re sitting here saying the local school, though, is not giving him the education he needs.” And I’ve told that story all over the State. And again, I had several stories like it, but it was just when you go out, and you really talk to the rural communities, and again, like you said, and I don’t know that every state appreciates how dirty that can be.
They were running ads of me burning down local schoolhouses, and I’m going to destroy every rural school in the State and shut all 300 of them down. I mean, it was just this complete millions of dollars behind, “You’re going to shut down every rural school in the State.” And so taking it head on to go, “No, here’s the position, here’s how it can work, and here’s what it can look like,” I think, is really important. And I think that you start getting those anecdotes, and you start going into the communities, and they see that you’re being very truthful, very upfront with them. And I think we were able to win it, but it took a lot of, you had to go out and talk to people. You had to get [inaudible]. I went to all 77 counties, and you got out there and really had these open conversations with people.
Roberts: And it seems that, like with every other issue, when we know we have the facts, we have the data, but rather than lead with the facts and data, you’ve got these stories, you’ve got these anecdotes, and you put those together. And especially for these rural constituents, rural legislators as well, when, like all of us, this is just human nature, they can reach their own conclusion based on the facts and based on the stories.
They can see themselves or their kids or grandkids or neighbors in those stories that even in rural parts of our states, given online education, given all of the technology in education, there actually can be alternatives if the family wants it. And ultimately, that’s what this is all about, right, is giving families this choice. I’m curious what your measures of success are.
Walters: Yes, sir.
Roberts: You no doubt have communicated this to the people of Oklahoma. I’m curious from one leader to another is I’ve got my dashboard of things I look at at Heritage. At the end of the day or the week, or the month, whatever your cadence is, how do you judge that Ryan Walters is doing a great job? I have no doubt that you are, but I’m curious how you know.
Walters: Right. And I think this is incredibly important in education. And one of the ways that the education establishment has avoided accountability is they really fight on this. We’re doing this right now of, we have one of our major school districts that I told them they needed to remove the superintendent because Tulsa Public Schools was the lowest-performing school in our state. They had been in this terrible trajectory, and we got them to remove their superintendent, bringing in an interim. And we’ve been going over these plans with them. And it’s just interesting to have these conversations with people because you have to have measures of success. But not only that in education, you have got to break them down within the school year to see where growth is occurring.
So my measurements for success are reading and math proficiencies in fourth and eighth grade because we have to master the basics early on. We have gotten dreadful in our reading and math scores across the country, but particularly in Oklahoma. And then when you get into the older grades, what we’ve really got to get back to is you’ve master the basics. And then you ensure that there’s pathways for success that could look like a college path, could look like a path to the trades, could look like externships, internships, but it’s about job placement post, whatever that path is. So I love the fourth and eighth grade of math and reading. I love, we kind of look at the 11th grade, ACT [inaudible] but I love the 18 months job placement as well because that really gives you that whole package, that whole picture. But what we’ve pushed for is we’ve got to see these measures throughout the year. You wait till the end of the year. You get them in the middle of the summer.
It’s not enough time, and it’s not enough data to really measure where success is happening and why. So one of the things we’re doing with that district, and we’re going to be doing statewide, is to have these snapshot measurements throughout the year. So that, look, if you’re two months into school and there’s a terrible trajectory with one of the school districts, you need to make a change. And again, the sense of urgency I’m talking about statewide should apply in individual districts as well. And that’s one of the things I’ve tried to articulate as a former teacher and coach is there’s so much of what really, frankly, are the same things that work inside a classroom or the same approach you should take to the overall school system. Again, when I looked at kids, I didn’t look at them as a block of kids.
I looked at them as individuals, individuals that needed high expectations, and they didn’t... you never brought expectations down. But you looked at every kid as an individual who was unique, and you tried to provide them everything they needed to hit those expectations. And so I think that you’ve got to take that same approach statewide. We look at those measurements. We’re pushing districts that, “Look, when you’re not hitting these things, you need to make drastic changes.” But also gives us that trajectory too of we’ll be able to see things at the end of the year, but we’ll also be able to see during the year how programs, how our initiatives are working, where they’re more effective at and why that is, right. But I think it’s really important that you bring that accountability in by being able to see those numbers throughout the year.
Roberts: And those more routine snapshots don’t have to be onerous in terms of time.
Roberts: Right. Because that’s often, I think, a legitimate concern that parents and educators have that let’s not have a ridiculous amount of assessments of standardized-
Roberts: ... tests. I get that, and to a large extent agree with it, but nothing on the scale that you’re doing. I ran a relatively small K through 12 school that I started, and we did that as a matter of course because we believed we had a moral obligation as you do. I think people in public schools should believe the same thing that we’re going to correct a course if, in fact, that trajectory is not good, that’s all you’re begging for. And it doesn’t take a whole lot of time.
Walters: No, it doesn’t. And you can do this in a way that is not overly onerous. You don’t want to over test. You don’t want to over assess. It can get that way. We have the technology now where you do these quick snapshots that you can give back, where you can see, and again, one of the things we’re launching, we’re launching a huge literacy initiative across the State, is parents should be able to see these things and be able to get the materials to assist at home. Look, if your kid is a grade level behind in reading, the parents should be able to see the trajectory. Is the kid getting caught up? Is the kid how far behind? Where are we progressing to? And also be able to see, these are the materials you can do at home to help supplement this, but these are things that we can easily do.
It’s just a matter of are you willing to do it. Are you willing to be able to show that kind of accountability to the public? And so we’re going to make sure that our schools are that way. And that’s, again, part of the transparency as well. When you talk about parent choice, part of what makes parent choice effective is ensuring parents can actually not only make the decision on the school but be able to see how is my child doing in the school. How is the school district making decisions? So that’s where transparency is so important. And again, it is an approach that, like you said, it’s very doable, and it’s one of those things that parents appreciate it too. And we’ve seen a lot of districts that are able to do this. You get that parent engagement. You get parents that are asking more questions that are more involved, which we know is such a key to academic success.
Roberts: And so, in order to achieve that academic success, you also have to get out of the classroom things that have no business being there. And so there are two or three of these topics that come to mind. You might add some to this list. The first one that occurs to me is critical race theory. What have you had to do in Oklahoma in order to eliminate that scourge?
Walters: So, you know, we passed a bill that banned critical race theory from our classrooms. And then, the next step was actually enforcing that law to make sure that when we had teachers that openly defied it, we would take their teacher’s licensure. If we have districts that openly did it as a district and pushed that on their teachers, we downgraded their accreditation.
And this is part of when we talk about actually holding districts accountable. We have to make sure that these things are out of our schools, this type of liberal indoctrination by holding individuals accountable that violate state law, that decide that they’re going to be social justice warriors in the classroom instead of a teacher. You mentioned this earlier, Dr. Roberts, but I had some reporters during the campaign trail go, “Well, we found some of your former students, and they said they didn’t even know you were a Republican.” And I go, “Well, guys, that’s the point” is that when I-
Roberts: It’s a great compliment.
Walters: Right. That’s [inaudible], I told them. I go, “Yeah, I take that as a compliment.” You’re not supposed to do that. With your kids, you can teach history and be objective and not sit here and give them one side or the other, but actually provide them facts, not tell them what to think, but teach them how to think and let them come to their own conclusions. And what we’ve seen, though, now is radical leftists decide that this is their platform. This is their ability to really push kids. Luckily, we have groups that are out there showing this online that these teachers are even willing to post videos of themselves saying that this is what they’re doing. This is their goal. So we have to remove those things out of the classroom.
So we’ve been holding the teachers accountable that do that and the districts. And again, frankly, when we talk about the teacher shortage, we don’t hear this a lot in the mainstream media, but we have teachers all the time that come to me and say, “I’m getting out because I have administrators who tell me they want me to teach things that have critical race theory or that have this radical gender ideology where they go, ‘Look, I’m here to teach math. Why would I talk to kids about sex ed in second grade? I don’t see...’“ And so we’re losing teachers over this too. We are losing high-quality people who want to get in the classroom and teach their kids. There’s no place for it.
We had a situation where we passed [inaudible] our board a rule that said if you talk to kids about changing their gender, you have to tell the parent. We had a parent come in and say, “Look, I’m no conservative. I’m actually a liberal Democrat. But I had a school counselor tell my daughter that not only should she change her gender, but she told her to keep it from her parents and helped her devise a plan to run away from home.” And she came to our board and said, “I support you guys passing this because that can’t be allowed to happen to anybody else.” But we’re seeing this in schools. We have to be proactive to get that out so parents can feel good about what their kids are learning at their schools.
Roberts: And if we don’t succeed in eliminating what are, at best, distractions, and we know that the two that you mentioned actually very evil, then we have no hope of being focused on what education is really about, which is intellectual attainment in those discrete subjects. Another external force that has way too big a role in American education, unfortunately, including in Oklahoma, is China. You’ve been outspoken on this. You wrote something recently that I read earlier today. Tell us about that problem generally and what you’ve done to confront it.
Walters: I think it’s so many Americans worst nightmares. We’ve seen our schools move away from teaching American exceptionalism and teach that our country is literally racist. It’s embedded in our very core. They don’t teach about the inalienable rights that we’re put in the declaration, where those come from. And that was a turning point in world history. But then, now what we’ve got, and we have one of our schools in Oklahoma or Tulsa Public Schools that’s been taking money from the Chinese Communist government. The Chinese government has funneled this money through a nonprofit in Texas, and what the money goes to is these Confucius Institutes, which tell them, “You’re to teach about Chinese history.” And get this. “There’s certain things you can’t talk about in the classroom. We don’t want you talking about the problems of communist China. You only tell them about how great communist China is.”
So you have a foreign country that is very adversarial to us, that is literally funding a PR program in our schools to our K-12 students. So we’ve required the district to turn over all monies, all materials, we’re going to put a stop to that program, but there’s 25 other schools across the country that have accepted money from this program and that are doing this. We’ve got some legislators at the US Capitol that are looking at stepping in as well. But states, we cannot allow our foreign adversaries to literally fund this type of ideology being pushed on our kids and literally lying to them about the horrors of communism of our adversaries. And this is where we go back to, could you imagine during the Cold War taking Russian money to go into our schools and say, “Hey, our K-12 schools, we’re going to have high school kids learning that communist Russia is fantastic and not telling them about any of the negative aspect of it is just absolutely incredible.”
Roberts: [inaudible] old Soviets have to be looking at this thing, “Man, I wish we had that opportunity-”
Roberts: “... Americans have voluntarily given the Chinese Communist Party.” So let’s step into your, and look into your crystal ball. 2030, 2040, what does education look like in Oklahoma based on your reforms and leadership, and therefore, what should it look like in America?
Walters: Yep. What I see is an education system that is very focused on students as individuals, meaning there’s this basic understanding of reading and math early, much earlier in the schooling than they have been. And then, seeing things like micro schools or public schools, being able to individualize instruction and getting them into the workforce and working inside a business. Also, being able to take college classes if they wish, but also develop their trade skills in high school. And how you create that type of environment of learning is multifaceted. I think number one, you’ve got to lay out School Choice, have to, but you can’t move forward with any major reform without Universal School Choice. That is a prerequisite for anything else we do.
So we are constantly looking at ways to break down geographic barriers. So we are still... we have Universal School Choice so that parents can choose, but for me, it is fantastic, but you got to continue to find ways to allow every parent to utilize those options. So just having them there, you’ve got to get them to people’s fingertips. So I think we’ve got to be working on that, and we’re going to see some more successes in that space. Then the next step is then creating a system that actually functions like everything else does in a free market. That’s where we’ve done incentive-based signing bonuses for teachers of the highest caliber. So we’re going out and actively recruiting the best teachers in the country, and we’re unapologetic about that. I’ve had some other states call and go, “Hey, what are you doing? You’re offering this teacher of mine a $50,000 signing bonus?”
And I go, “Yep, we are,” because we want to reward the highest caliber teachers. We want them in our classrooms, and we’re going to actively go out and pursue them. We’ve also created a career path for exceptional teachers. Hey, we’ve been very clear. We’re going to have performance pay. If you do a great job, I want to pay you more. They say, “[inaudible] this works.” History tells us it works. Human nature tells us it works. And so we want to start injecting that into classrooms. So we’re launching that September 1st, so we’re going to get that going where we’re going to actually have teachers that can make up to six figures for the work they’re doing with our kids. And so then you start seeing this environment build out where parents are more involved than ever through School Choice. Parents are more involved than ever in the day-to-day interactions with their kids because they’re getting the curriculum, they’re seeing the budgets, they’re very involved.
And then you’re getting these teachers that are the highest quality individuals that are being rewarded for their good work. Well, now, all of a sudden, you’ve got schools competing for the kids. You’ve got schools competing for the teachers. This is the environment that we’re going to continue to take Oklahoma down. And I think this is a path. This is a path for you get the good teachers in the schools, you get parents involved, and we’re going to tackle... You’re going to know American history. When you go through our schools, I want every kid to know the Declaration, the Constitution, the Federalist Papers. They’ve got... History has to be founded in what are America’s core principles. Know them and then look at all of American history through that prism. Did we measure up to those principles at this time, or is this a moment where we didn’t?
But that’s how you teach American history so that kids have that to hold onto. And I firmly believe when you look at America, decline is a choice. If we teach our kids these principles and we call them to live up to them, we will continue to be this great country, but they to have to know them, and the only way that we continue to move in that direction, the only way that we solve any issues in this country, the only way that we’re able to continue down that path is to understand that bedrock [inaudible] principles and have the next generation grow up with a profound understanding of them and appreciation for them. And again, I’m... you kind of got me going on this one.
Roberts: You’re on a roll. Keep going.
Walters: ... one of my favorite things to do with students. I love the founding era. We would go... I would sometimes spend an entire class period on one Federalist Paper. We would go through one by one. But one of my other favorite things to do is read the letters from the soldiers during World War II. When they wrote back home, they knew why they were fighting for this country.
And we have to get this next generation to a place where they’re able to articulate what is American exceptionalism but also are willing to sacrifice for the country. And that’s where I think we can go. I think that that’s where, if we get back to, you’re going to see people that are dedicated to getting the country back on track. And that’s why I’m always optimistic because working with young people, it keeps you that way. It keeps you hopeful because you just see that their future is so bright, and America’s future can be bright if we’re able to get this back on track.
Roberts: Like any good teacher, I know you did your homework, and you preempted the last question, which is always about why are you optimistic. And so I’ll ask you a different final question, and that is, what advice do you give to parents wherever they are in terms of states, whatever their situation is with kids in school, out of school, whether they can help you directly or the movement more broadly, what advice do you give to them as it relates to education?
Walters: Yeah, that’s a great question. What I would tell parents is never back down. God gave your children to you. It’s the most precious gift that you can ever receive. I mean, I have four little ones, and it’s absolutely an incredible gift that God has passed on to families and to have children, and you fight for those kids, and you are the one that’s going to make the difference in your kids’ life, but in so many other kids’ life by unapologetically fighting for your kids. And it is a battle. This is a war in the classroom. You have the left that is actively pushing this on your kids. They’re creating an environment where your kids are not only going to not appreciate this country, they are trying to undermine our traditional values. They’re trying to undermine the family. They’re trying to undermine our faith.
You see so much of this in our schools. So much of the heat that I’ve taken on is we’ve passed the first Catholic charter school in the country, and we’ve got folks saying, “Well, you can’t... Separation a church and state.” I’m going, “You fundamentally misunderstand what the founders intended for this country.” We want to ensure that kids understand when they read the phrase, “Endowed by our creator,” that means they need to understand what the founders meant by, “Endowed by our creator.” They need to understand the First Grade Awakening. They need to understand the Judeo-Christian values that the country had and that the founders believed, “Hey, look, this is part of what makes American exceptional.” And the families and all parents need to know the left is saying, “Yeah, we want that all stripped out. We don’t want kids... We don’t want the parent in that primary role for their kids. We want you to rely on us, the government bureaucracy.” And so as long as you continue to fight, we’re going to win.
Because the reality is we know the way that society should work. The nuclear family unit is the way that God put together society. And so if you create an education system that appreciates that core and that does all that it can to say, “We’re here to support the nuclear family rather than destroy it,” you’re going to be successful. And so your voice is the most powerful voice in education. I love to see parents involved, but don’t back down, continue to fight for your kid. You are making a difference in both your kids’ life. But I’m telling you that the movement that we’re seeing right now in education is because of those moms and dads and grandparents. I love seeing the grandparents involved too, that have engaged in education the way that they have.
Roberts: And that movement isn’t going anywhere. In fact, as we were talking off camera, it’s increasing. It’s maturing. It’s politically influential. And I would hate to be on the other side in its way because it will prevail.
Walters: That’s right. I mean, how... going against parents, good luck with that. So it is. It is. The future is bright. We’re going to continue. Hey, and hold your state leaders accountable. Hold your representatives accountable. This requires swift action. Don’t back down to bullies. And I would demand parents aren’t going to, but your state leaders and your elected officials need to do the same. And it is long past time that we’ve stood up to teachers’ unions that are more concerned with money and power than they are kids. Parents always have their kids’ best interest at heart. So you’re on the right side of this. And again, I am incredibly optimistic about the future and the way that parents are involved.
Roberts: Ryan Walters, thanks for being here. Thanks most of all for your service to the people of Oklahoma and, increasingly, I would argue, your leadership and service to America. God bless you.
Walters: Thank you very much. I appreciate that.
Roberts: I told you you would love the conversation and that you would be hopeful as a result. And so whether you’re a parent, a grandparent, not yet married, don’t have kids, Superintendent Ryan Walters has given us some homework. And so let’s go do that for the sake of our kids and for the sake of the American future. In the meantime, take care.