Two school districts in Oklahoma will remain under a downgraded accreditation status after they were accused of violating a state law that bars certain types of teachings on race and gender, despite educators’ calls on Thursday to lift the punishment they say is hurting teachers and students.
The Oklahoma State Board of Education reaffirmed a 4-2 vote on July 28 designating the Tulsa Public Schools and Mustang Public Schools districts as “accredited with warning.”
The reduction means the districts are two tiers away from losing accreditation altogether.
“We are disappointed that the Oklahoma State Board of Education determined – without any discussion – to not even consider Tulsa Public Schools’ request that it reevaluate the egregious and baseless action it took on our district’s accreditation status in July,” Tulsa superintendent Deborah Gist said in a written statement following the vote.
The law at the heart of the matter is House Bill 1775, which was passed and signed by Gov. Kevin Stitt in May 2021.
It prohibits, in part, teachers and other staff from teaching courses that indicate one race or gender is inherently superior to another. It also bars teaching the idea that a person of specific race or gender “bears responsibility for actions committed in the past by other members of the same race or sex,” according to the bill’s text.
The Oklahoma bill does not mention “critical race theory,” but it emerged amid a contentious debate raging in many school districts over how the subjects of inequality and racism should be taught in American schools.
The downgrade for Tulsa was in response to a complaint filed by a teacher who claimed she was required to watch training videos that “specifically shame white people for past offenses in history, and state that all are implicitly racially biased by nature.”
That accusation was challenged Thursday when the school district said the training session in question was about the subject of implicit bias and did not indicate White people are inherently racist. “The law does not prohibit the concept of implicit bias,” Gist said at the meeting.
In the case of the Mustang Public Schools, a teacher in January conducted a “cross the line” activity in an effort to “foster a sense of belonging and empathy amongst students in a Leadership class,” the district said in a statement last month.
“Cross the Line activities originated from the anti-bullying space and were meant to help students to develop the understanding that everyone has something that they deal with and to empathize with and not bully or tease others,” the district said. “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 district responded by eliminating the activity immediately, it said.
On Thursday, superintendent Charles Bradley told the state school board the downgrade decision was uninformed as the district had handled the issue appropriately at the local level to “everyone’s satisfaction.”
“This was an isolated event by one teacher and quickly resolved,” Bradley said. “Due process will allow this board to look at the facts and make an informed decision that accreditation with warning is not warranted in this situation.”
The Mustang school district is based in Oklahoma City.
Several people representing Mustang and Tulsa school districts implored the state board to reconsider its decision.
“We are fearful to think that a teacher at another site, who was just trying to teach an activity over empathy, who made a mistake, is in danger of losing his job, of losing his certification, of contributing to Mustang Public Schools losing their accreditation,” Mustang High School principal Kathy Knowles said. “That is scary.”
In October of 2021, a group of students and educators filed a complaint challenging the Oklahoma law that restricts teaching about race and gender, in what the American Civil Liberties Union called the first federal lawsuit to challenge such a statewide ban.
The suit – backed by the ACLU, the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law, the Oklahoma state conference of the NAACP and the American Indian Movement Indian Territory – sought to block enforcement of the law it says inhibits free speech and education of complete history through the framework of critical race theory.