NEW from Walters Watch: Chaos, Defections, and Scandal Continue to Befall Ryan Walters’ Oklahoma State Department of Education

by Sam Lau

Walters under fire for another out-of-state contract to a PR firm, reports of losing 3rd top OSDE official in a month

Politico profile lifts up rifts with fellow Republicans, toxic culture at OSDE, and potential FBI investigation

If Oklahoma State Superintendent of Public Instruction Ryan Walters thought a weekend would spare him from more scathing stories or his Oklahoma State Department of Education (OSDE) from more chaos and scandal, he was sorely mistaken.

  • First, Fox 25 and Oklahoma Watch uncovered ANOTHER contract between OSDE and an out-of-state PR firm, leaving Oklahoma taxpayers footing the bill for the $50,000 contract. This firm previously made a video for the agency attacking teachers unions that left a Duncan school teacher “in tears” and the majority of teachers who saw it feeling “directly threatened.”

  • Then, there were reports from an Oklahoma television station that Walters’ chief of staff was leaving the agency. If true, this would be the THIRD senior level employee Walters has lost in the past month alone, on top of the at least 86 employees the agency lost in 2023, Walters' first year in office. The mass defections have the attention of the Republican-led legislature–both the House Speaker and Senate President Pro Tem are on record expressing concern about the wave of departures.

  • Finally, Politico Magazine published a lengthy and unflattering profile of Ryan Walters that had been in the works for a year. The piece, by Juan Perez Jr., demonstrates the lengths to which Walters has alienated nearly everyone who should be his allies–from parents and teachers, to Republican legislators, to his own employees. It also lifts up the news, first reported by The Oklahoman, that “The FBI and state attorney general have investigated Walters’ stewardship of federal pandemic relief funds and activities related to campaign and nonprofit roles he held before winning office, according to four people with knowledge of the investigations who requested anonymity to discuss the sensitive matter.”

“Ryan Walters continues to face scandal after scandal and not even members of his own party are willing to defend him anymore,” said HRC spokesperson Laurel Powell. “The losers in his twisted game are Oklahoma students and the state’s public school system, who continue to be led by a man as incompetent as he is cruel and selfish. Ryan Walters has to go.”

Read more of Walters' damning coverage below:

Politico: The State Superintendent at the Forefront of the GOP’s Education Crusade

  • “While his hard-line politics have put him at the vanguard nationally, and often in line with the Republican base, his views have alienated an unexpected cohort of former allies and fellow conservatives in Oklahoma — and prompted a battery of unflattering coverage from a dogged corps of local journalists.”

  • “What’s a shame is that he and I — we didn’t agree on a lot of things — but we agreed on public education and educating our kids,” said Republican state Rep. Mark McBride, an assistant floor leader and education appropriator who now is one of Walters’ fiercest conservative critics. “Since he got elected, he just has gone off the rails. I can’t support much of anything he does.”

  • “Walters has asserted that his political opponents are waging “civil war” against children and conspiring to topple religion, and he’s defended a highly disputed conservative philosophy that rejects the separation of church and state. “There’s no basis for it in the Constitution,” Walters told me. “This was not something the Founders talked about. This wasn’t a core fundamental principle. And what we’ve seen is the left weaponize this term to actually mean the state will promote atheism and target any other faiths.” The idea has divided even conservatives. Drummond withdrew O’Connor’s opinion under the argument that it misused “the concept of religious liberty by employing it as a means to justify state-funded religion” and he is suing to stop the school from opening.”

  • Just months into the job, Walters’ new employees told journalists the education department had become “toxic” after he took office. “The culture changed within a matter of weeks,” said one of Walters’ former colleagues, who requested anonymity to discuss the superintendent’s tenure. “The real fear that people felt across the agency was not only that they might be fired but that they would be caught up in something illegal and they would be responsible for it. I had never seen a culture like that.”

  • His replacement, Katherine Curry, then resigned just months after taking office citing the “complexity and political environment” surrounding the secretary job. Curry later told The Oklahoman that the state superintendent’s office would not turn over information on how the agency budgeted and spent money.

  • Another department grant official, Pamela Smith-Gordon, abruptly left her office in the fall citing similar concerns. She also told the Tulsa World that she never saw Walters in the office. “I don’t know if he doesn’t know what the job is that he ran for, or if he’s scared to do the job that he ran for, or he doesn’t know how to do the job that he ran for. What I do know is that he isn’t doing it,” Gist, the former head of Tulsa schools, told me a few days before she resigned. “The superintendent’s actions have made it clear that he’s focusing on political talking points rather than the real work of serving the community.”

  • At the same time his national profile has increased, Walters has at times been sidelined on education policy at home. Oklahoma lawmakers have approved a massive tax credit program for private school tuition, teacher pay raises worth thousands of dollars, a $150 million school safety program, literacy programs and hundreds of millions of dollars in new education funding. “We did every bit of that without our state superintendent,” Republican state Rep. Rhonda Baker told me. “Because we knew that he could not be part of it or the whole thing would blow up.”

  • “In Oklahoma, the legislature is really trying to move the needle in education,” said Baker, a veteran educator and chair of key education committees in her chamber. “And frustratingly enough, we’re being overshadowed by the antics of our state superintendent.”

The Oklahoman: News report: Ryan Walters loses chief of staff, latest agency defection

  • “A local television news station has reported a third executive-level staffer working for state schools Superintendent Ryan Walters has left the Oklahoma State Department of Education. News 4 Oklahoma at KFOR reported Friday it has been told by numerous sources Jenna Thomas, chief of staff at the agency, resigned from her post earlier this week.”

  • “If Thomas indeed has left, her resignation will have been the latest high-profile departure to have impacted Walters' administration since he took office at the start of 2023 and the third since just the beginning of this month.”

  • “Asked about the agency's departures this week, state Senate President Pro Tem Greg Treat, R-Oklahoma City, said he's "watching" what's happening with interest. "I don't have a lot of insight as to what led to those," Treat said. "But I'm watching it, because one of the most critical things we do is public education and that agency's extremely important to delivering that product."

  • “Oklahoma House Speaker Charles McCall, R-Atoka, said turnover in institutional knowledge in any organization is concerning "from the outside looking in. ... For myself, it's important. We spend time ensuring we maintain the best people possible, because these state agencies and these institutions, having institutional knowledge, helps the functionality, helps the institution meet its mission."

  • “While turnover is routine any state agency when its elected leadership changes, the number of departures at the education department have been surprising, especially those this year…Just through September of 2023, about 86 employees had left the agency since Walters took office.”

Fox 25: Oklahoma Department of Education spends $50,000 on video work with Texas-based firm

  • “FOX 25, working with Oklahoma Watch, was the first to report on March 13th that OSDE entered into a contract with Vought Strategies on March 6th. The DC-based company was hired to help promote Superintendent Ryan Walters on the national level.

  • The same day that contract was signed, OSDE hired Precision Outreach, a Texas-based company. Taxpayers are now footing the bill for $50,000 worth of video work for the state agency.

  • This isn't the first time OSDE has hired Precision Outreach. In May 2023, during a State Board of Education meeting, a "public awareness campaign" video was played. The subject: teachers unions.

  • "It literally brought me to tears," Jami Cole, a Duncan school teacher told FOX 25 in May. "The only message that I saw from that is I'm coming for you teachers, and I felt threatened. I think that's the majority of teachers in that room, we all felt directly threatened."


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