In Stunning Rebuke of State Superintendent Ryan Walters, Oklahoma’s GOP Governor and Legislature Take Major Steps to Limit Walters’ Power

by Laurel Powell

Following months of public outcry over his varied abuses of power, provisions in the newly approved state budget and executive order will prevent Ryan Walters from continuing his habit of misusing taxpayer funds in order to raise his own political profile at the expense of Oklahoma’s schools - already 49th in the nation

After death of Nex Benedict, Oklahomans across the state criticized Walters for creating an environment hostile to LGBTQ+ students and prioritizing his political career over what was best for Oklahoma students, parents, and schools

OKLAHOMA CITY, OK - In a stunning rebuke of a statewide public official by senior leaders in his own party, the Oklahoma state budget signed today by Republican Governor Kevin Stitt - after being passed by a supermajority Republican legislature - undercuts State Superintendent of Public Instruction Ryan Walters’ authority. Alongside the budget, Gov. Stitt issued an executive order that meaningfully curtails the ability of the state superintendent to spend taxpayer funding on his own personal public relations. These significant legislative and executive steps come after months of Oklahomans demanding accountability for Walters’ failed leadership and dangerous rhetoric and policies - including but not limited to matters of LGBTQ+ equality.

SB 1122 includes a budget provision that increases legislative oversight of Walters and responds to the ways that he has abused the power of his office to raise his own political profile at the expense of Oklahoma’s schools. The rider lays out the Attorney General’s obligation to ensure the department is spending its funds appropriately and to intervene if they have reason to believe there may be issues. This could include criminal charges. Walters has faced a subpoena from the legislature requiring he turn over information about a state employee he hired - who had formerly served as his campaign manager - without an application or contract.

In addition, today Gov. Stitt issued an executive order alongside the budget rider. The order prohibits Supt. Walters and other Oklahoma officials from spending taxpayer dollars on personal public relations services. It also prevents them from working with companies who are engaged in running political campaigns or who employ registered lobbyists. This order comes after Walters has been widely criticized for using taxpayer dollars to hire an out-of-state PR firm to book him national media appearances, during which he spewed hateful messages about LGBTQ+ youth. A similar provision in the budget rider passed by the legislature applied only to Walters, which the Governor replaced with this order.

Today is a major victory for Oklahomans who have demanded their legislators hold Ryan Walters accountable for failing their kids, their schools, and their communities. Superintendent Walters thought he could bully LGBTQ+ students, drive Oklahoma’s schools, ranked 49th in the country in K-12 education, into the ground, and use taxpayer dollars to boost his own political profile without repercussions. But Oklahoma parents, education advocates, the LGBTQ+ community and allies, and ultimately, elected officials of his own party, refused to let that happen. Walters is a victim of his own hubris and incompetence–and these accountability measures are the result. HRC was proud to work with our partners on the ground, including Freedom Oklahoma, Defense of Democracy, and more, to ensure that Walters faced the consequences demanded by his constituents.

Despite today’s news, the Oklahoma legislature continues to do real damage to LGBTQ+ Oklahomans - more than 50 anti-LGBTQ+ bills have been filed in Oklahoma in recent years, and in just the past few weeks the legislature passed a bill adopting a discriminatory definition of sex that will have impact LGBTQ+ Oklahomans in many areas of life. Ryan Walters has proudly and repeatedly declared himself to be anti-LGBTQ+, but holding him accountable is only the beginning of the work that needs to be done to address the culture of harassment faced by LGBTQ+ students. Because every student, no matter where they live, how they identify, or who they love, deserves to feel welcome and supported in school.

Kelley Robinson, President of the Human Rights Campaign

After months of appeals from Oklahomans, the Oklahoma Legislature and Gov. Stitt have finally taken action to curtail Ryan Walters’s vanity PR spending and restrict his ability to threaten and misuse taxpayer funding to enact his hateful agenda. But they do so shortly after passing legislation targeting 2STGNC+ Oklahomans. Further, they end the session without any action on potential investigation for impeachment or on the harmful administrative rules proposed by the Walters administration. Ryan Walters has been the figurehead for policies and rhetoric that create hostile school environments that every day harm Oklahoma students, in situations that have continued to be highlighted since the death of Nex Benedict. Oklahoma students, families, and teachers deserve care and concern about providing the best education possible in an environment that fosters learning and access for all students. Unfortunately, even with today's accountability measures, policy makers across the board continue to fail us in that regard. We deserve better.

Nicole McAfee, Executive Director of Freedom Oklahoma

It's a profound disservice to Oklahomans that Walters continues to elevate his national political profile on the taxpayer's dime while focusing on culture wars unrelated to public education. Oklahoma students deserve a state superintendent who is committed to their job & the success of all Oklahoma students - not someone who spends his time targeting trans and non-binary youth for political talking points. While SB 1122 is a step to curb this egregious behavior, we are still witnessing the passage of aggressively anti-2SLGBTQ bills that are extremely harmful to Oklahomans. We urge all concerned citizens to join us, Oklahoma parents, educators and students, in fighting for equality and freedom for everyone in our state.

Erica Watkins, Regional Director at Defense of Democracy

Governor Stitt line-item vetoed a third provision, passed by the Republican legislature, that would have forced Walters to ask for permission from legislature before making decisions that could imperil federal funds for Oklahoma schools. Ryan Walters has been under constant scrutiny over his refusal to apply for federal grants or comply with federal civil rights laws - including Title IX regulations - that could cause Oklahoma to lose hundreds of millions of dollars in federal funding. Under the proposal he would have needed to seek permission from the legislature prior to taking any action that might imperil federal funds.

Walters made national headlines following the tragic death of Nex Benedict, (he/they), a 16-year-old nonbinary student of Choctaw heritage, who died one day after a brutal assault in a high school bathroom, which followed a year of experiencing harassment and bullying at their Owasso, Oklahoma, high school. Nex’s death has been mourned by people across Oklahoma and the country and exposed Walters’ history of discriminatory and bullying behaviors that created a culture of harassment for LGBTQ+ students–a history that includes appointing Chaya Raichik, a Southern Poverty Law Center designated “extremist,” to a state agency advisory committee. It also brought to light Walters’ tenure of incompetence, scandal, and mismanagement running Oklahoma’s public schools system–with Oklahoma K-12 education currently ranking 49th in the country.

In March, the Human Rights Campaign launched “Remove Ryan Walters,” a 360° campaign to hold Walters accountable for failing Oklahoma students, teachers, and schools. HRC worked closely with our partners on the ground to ensure the voices of Oklahomans’ tired of Walters’ bullying behaviors would be heard loud and clear. This work included:

  • Triggering an investigation by the U.S. Department of Education into Owasso Public Schools and its failure to respond appropriately to sex-based harassment that may have contributed to Nex’s death. This was in response to a letter from HRC president Kelley Robinson. HRC has also asked the U.S. Department of Education to open an investigation into Ryan Walters and the Oklahoma State Department of Education.

  • Writing to Attorney General Merrick Garland asking the U.S. Department of Justice to begin an investigation into Nex’s death. In addition Robinson wrote to Dr. Margaret Coates, superintendent of the Owasso school district in Oklahoma, calling for the superintendent to take advantage of the Human Rights Campaign’s Welcoming Schools program — the most comprehensive bias-based bullying prevention program in the nation to provide LGBTQ+ and gender-inclusive training and resources — and offering to bring experts to the district immediately.

  • Mobilizing our Oklahoma members and supporters to make more than 3200 phone calls to their state legislators and the Governor.

  • Collaborating with partners on the ground to hold events in Tulsa and Oklahoma City that allowed Oklahomans to register their anger and frustration with Walters’ failed leadership. The postcards Oklahomans wrote to their legislators were then dropped off at the state capitol following May’s board of education meeting.

  • Launching a “Remove Ryan Walters” petition that has garnered over 57,000 signatures nationwide

  • Creating, a public pressure campaign site with more than 3 million impressions, that exposes Walters’ many failures and reports on his record of mismanagement and hateful rhetoric.

  • Producing and promoting digital ads – reaching 10% of the voting age population with nearly 2.1 million impressions with targeted paid media, digital homepage takeovers, Google search, and digital billboards – to ensure Oklahomans understand how Walters is failing their kids and the state. This included powerful video testimony from Marley H., an Owasso High School grad and Oklahoman speaking to the culture of harassment and bullying she witnessed firsthand during her time in the Owasso school district, how it impacted her and her fellow students, and what she sees as the way forward for the district and state.

  • Amplifying the voices of Oklahomans with widespread traction and over 2 million video views across social media — reaching and engaging those calling for justice for Nex, including on-the-ground advocates, Members of Congress, and other notable influential figures.

  • Joining more than 350 national, state, and local organizations in an open letter to Oklahoma legislative leadership urging the immediate removal of Walters and an investigation into the Oklahoma State Department of Education.

The Human Rights Campaign is America’s largest civil rights organization working to achieve equality for lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and queer (LGBTQ+) people. HRC envisions a world where LGBTQ+ people are embraced as full members of society at home, at work and in every community.

Freedom Oklahoma is the state's only dedicated 2SLGBTQ+ advocacy organization and works each day to build a future where all 2SLGBTQ+ people have the safety to thrive.

Defense of Democracy educates the public about the value of inclusivity and the importance of emotional and physical safety for all individuals within the American public-school and library systems.


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