STATE

Superintendent election a 'battle' for future of Oklahoma public education

One of the most closely watched races of the 2022 election cycle, the campaign for state schools superintendent, has bucked its usual down-ballot status and seized widespread public interest, with many billing it a high-stakes contest for the future of Oklahoma public education.

The Nov. 8 general election features a governor-backed Republican candidate with polarizing rhetoric and the 2020 Oklahoma Teacher of the Year running as a political newcomer on the Democratic ticket, who emerged with a narrow lead in a recent poll.

Democrat Jena Nelson and a cadre of supporters say the future of public schools is on the line in November, as the Oklahoma City English teacher faces GOP nominee Ryan Walters, who proposed rejecting federal education funding, using state dollars to send more children to private schools, and punishing teachers and districts over perceived liberal indoctrination

“It's a battle,” Nelson told a crowd at a rally earlier this month in Oklahoma City. “It all is the same plan, which is to defund public education and make sure that our teachers stay in line.”

Democratic candidate for state superintendent Jena Nelson waves to the crowd Sept. 7, 2022, during a pep rally at Camp Trivera in Oklahoma City.

Statewide poll shows political newcomer Jena Nelson leading Ryan Walters

Nelson led Walters 48% to 43% in SoonerPoll.com's survey of 402 likely voters. The poll, conducted Sept. 2-7, found Nelson had more than 90% support among likely voters who said education is their No. 1 issue in the November election.

Before the Aug. 23 runoff primary, Walters said he would seek to wean Oklahoma schools off of federal dollars because “the feds have no place in our education system” and the administrative burden they place on schools is too costly. His comments set off alarm bells among educators and created a new campaign talking point for his opponent.

Federal funds contribute about $921 million to the state’s public schools, not including COVID-19 relief dollars, to pay for school meals, special education and support for impoverished students, among numerous other programs. 

More recently, Walters said it's untrue that he intends to defund public schools. 

“The far left and some of the Democrat candidates have decided that lying and using scare tactics is going to be their direction with this election, and Oklahoma voters are going to see through that,” he said. “They’re going to see through the lies and understand that Oklahomans want a rejection of indoctrination in their schools.” 

Ryan Walters, right, stands beside Gov. Kevin Stitt on Aug. 23, 2022, after winning the GOP primary runoff election for state superintendent.

Ryan Walters looks to snuff out 'woke ideology' from Oklahoma classrooms

Eliminating “woke ideology” is a campaign cornerstone for Walters, a 2016 finalist for state Teacher of the Year and the education secretary on Gov. Kevin Stitt’s Cabinet. Walters advocated for downgrading accreditation of Tulsa Public Schools and Mustang Public Schools over alleged violations of House Bill 1775, a state law limiting teachings on race and gender. 

He recently called to revoke the certification of a Norman High School teacher who resigned in opposition to HB 1775. That teacher, Summer Boismier, had covered her classroom bookshelves with red butcher paper that read, “Books the state doesn’t want you to read,” and shared a QR code with her students that gave access to banned books in the Brooklyn Public Library. 

“There is no place for a teacher with a liberal political agenda in the classroom,” Walters said in a letter posted to social media.   

Boismier filed a police report Aug. 31 in the hours after Walters publicly criticized her, warning she had been harassed in “vulgar and threatening emails” that prompted her to flee her home. Last week, a group of 14 conservative lawmakers called on the Oklahoma State Department of Education to investigate whether she violated HB 1775. 

Former English teacher Summer Boismier covered bookshelves in her classroom at Norman High School in response to House Bill 1775, a state law banning certain race and gender concepts from schools. Boismier resigned after a parent complained of the display.

Jena Nelson: 'Oklahoma teachers are too broke to be woke'

Nelson mocked the notion that teachers are indoctrinators in a campaign catchphrase: “Oklahoma’s teachers are too broke to be woke.” 

The rhetoric taps into growing concerns among educators who worry HB 1775 creates an intimidating environment in which they're discouraged from addressing societal ills and dark chapters of history.

Many teachers who supported Walters' runoff opponent, Shawnee Public Schools Superintendent April Grace, are shifting their support to Nelson in the general election, said Jami Cole, an Oklahoma public school teacher and administrator of the Oklahoma Edvocates Facebook page. 

“We saw what happened with Tulsa. We saw what happened with Mustang,” Cole said. “Teachers feel like, ‘This could be my (teaching) license in jeopardy. This could be my school district that is dinged for something that is innocently done.’” 

Members of the 62,500-person Edvocates page, many of whom are teachers, widely oppose Walters and have begun to back Nelson. Several educators attended Nelson’s pep rally this month where two teachers union leaders were featured speakers. 

People cheer for democratic candidate for state superintendent Jena Nelson on Sept. 7, 2022, during a pep rally at Camp Trivera in Oklahoma City.

Jena Nelson, Ryan Walters look to gain momentum as Nov. 8 Oklahoma state superintendent election approaches

Walters defeated Grace 53% to 47% in the Aug. 23 primary runoff, leading by nearly 19,000 votes. Grace has not endorsed either general election candidate. 

Nelson gained 6,000 new followers on Facebook and 3,000 more on Twitter since the runoff, according to her campaign. She now has a similar follower count as Walters on both platforms.

She said more campaign donations and volunteers have come her way, as well. 

“A lot of teachers are telling me right now they’ve got one leg out the door, so this is a very important race to everyone who’s involved in public education right now," Nelson said. “I think that people are ready for a sense of hope. They’ve been bombarded with fear, fear, fear over and over again.” 

Nelson will take a leave of absence from teaching sixth- and seventh-grade English at Classen Middle School of Advanced Studies to focus on her campaign, according to an email the school sent to parents on Tuesday.

Jena Nelson, the former Oklahoma Teacher of the Year, announces her candidacy as a Democrat in the 2022 election for state schools superintendent on March 31, 2022.

Although Nelson was ahead in the SoonerPoll.com survey, Walters leads in fundraising and name recognition, which could "potentially change this race in the weeks ahead," said Bill Shapard, founder of the polling firm.

Embroiled in a competitive primary, Walters raised more than $451,000 before the runoff, almost six times as much as the $75,500 Nelson raised while she was unopposed from her party. The candidates' next campaign finance reports aren't due until late October.

Voter registration gives GOP candidates an edge in statewide races

GOP candidates traditionally have an edge in statewide races. Almost twice as many Oklahomans are registered Republican than Democrat in a state that allows straight-ticket voting. No Democrat has been elected to a statewide office since 2006.

Grace said she hasn’t noticed her Republican supporters outside of the education sphere flocking to the Democratic side. 

On the other hand, Walters said a “tremendous amount of folks” who voted for other Republican candidates in the superintendent primary are now embracing him. 

“Our campaign is about common sense,” Walters said. “Oklahomans want a good education system in their state. They want a focus on academics, not indoctrination.” 

Ryan Walters speaks Aug. 23, 2022, during a watch party in Oklahoma City after winning the GOP primary runoff election for state superintendent.

But, Walters hasn't won the full support of his party, SoonerPoll.com suggests. More than 70% of Republicans say they intend to vote for him while 19.6% reported they prefer Nelson, according to the poll. More than 90% of surveyed Democrats said they would back their party's nominee.

Poll shows some rural strength for Nelson

Heavily conservative rural areas are commonly difficult for a Democrat to win over, even one from a rural community like Nelson, a graduate of Broken Bow High School. The last rural Democrat in the state Legislature lost his re-election bid in 2020

However, SoonerPoll.com showed Nelson ahead in rural Congressional Districts 3 and 4, covering west and southwest Oklahoma, as well as in the Oklahoma City metro area's Congressional District 5. Walters led in eastern Oklahoma's rural regions and the Tulsa metro area, the poll reports.

In the GOP runoff, Grace won several rural counties where she said voters disliked Walters’ support for private-school vouchers, a policy Nelson also opposes. Rural communities view diverting public dollars to private schools as an existential threat to their local school funding, Grace said. 

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In Pontotoc County, Grace led Walters with 58% of the vote, but the southeast Oklahoma county’s Republican Party leader said she doubts a Democrat would have similar sway with local voters. 

Pontotoc County conservatives share several of Walters’ campaign priorities, but many in the area worried he might be influenced by special interest groups, said Angie Engel, chairwoman of the county’s GOP. 

“There’s an uneasiness of what would a Democratic candidate vote for and approve to go into our school systems,” Engel said. “Even though there’s questions about Ryan, they’re going to see him as that conservative candidate, and they're going to lean towards him. What people are seeing is that Democrats are saying yes to the critical race theory, they’re going along with what teachers unions want, and taking control and power away from parents.” 

Democratic candidate for state superintendent Jena Nelson waves to the crowd on Sept. 7, 2022, during a pep rally at Camp Trivera in Oklahoma City.

Nelson, who touted her rural roots in recent campaign ads, contends education is a universal issue. Communities in all corners of the state, she said, want fully funded schools with well-paid teachers. 

At her pep rally, Nelson promised to grow mental health access in all parts of the state by expanding telehealth and the counselor corps founded by state schools Superintendent Joy Hofmeister. 

“Public education is not Democrat or Republican. It's an issue that affects every single person,” Nelson said. “The conversations I’m having across the state with all of those groups — Republicans, Democrats, independents — is that they want to see their schools succeed.”  

Reporter Nuria Martinez-Keel covers K-12 and higher education throughout the state of Oklahoma. Have a story idea for Nuria? She can be reached at nmartinez-keel@oklahoman.com or on Twitter at @NuriaMKeel. Support Nuria’s work and that of other Oklahoman journalists by purchasing a digital subscription today at subscribe.oklahoman.com.