Ryan Walters announces creation of school choice office inside education agency

State schools Superintendent Ryan Walters announced the creation of an “Office of School Choice” within the Oklahoma State Department of Education during the monthly state Board of Education meeting held Thursday.

During the meeting, Walters didn’t provide details of who will work in the office or how it might operate, and departing from his usual custom after a board meeting, he chose not to speak with reporters after the meeting about the new office or numerous other issues now swirling around the agency he heads.

Those issues include the departure in March of multiple executive-level employees, including the chief of staff and executive director of accreditation – as well as all of the department’s in-house lawyers. They also include reports the agency spent $30,000 to hire an out-of-state public relations firm charged with boosting his national media profile.

In his brief description of the new school-choice division of the education department – which has a primary charge to serve public schools in Oklahoma – Walters described it as a “one-stop shop” for all matters related to school choice, including private and charter schools, vouchers and tax credits, homeschools and open enrollment/transfer, among other subjects.

He said Oklahoma will be only one of a few states to have such a division within its state education department.

State schools Superintendent Ryan Walters arrives for the March meeting of the Oklahoma State Board of Education meeting at the Oliver Hodge Building in Oklahoma City.
State schools Superintendent Ryan Walters arrives for the March meeting of the Oklahoma State Board of Education meeting at the Oliver Hodge Building in Oklahoma City.

“Whatever the educational option parents choose, I want to make sure they have one place to go where they can navigate their options for their child,” Walters said. “I am proud that OSDE will be among the very first state departments in the nation to have created this resource. Oklahoma will continue to lead on school choice now and into the future, and we will be here to assist parents every step of the way.”

One lawmaker reacted negatively to Walters' announcement. On Twitter, state Rep. Jacob Rosecrants, D-Norman, said of the idea: "I feel it’s more about Ryan Walters growing (government) to pander to a certain small but loud minority of folks who support vouchers."

The board meeting came after officials from either the education department or the Oklahoma Highway Patrol – which provides security for buildings within the State Capitol Complex – unexpectedly escalated security measures on Wednesday. An employee from one of the agencies tied already locked doors with a cable resembling an extension cord shortly after 5 p.m. Wednesday and posted an announcement that a curfew would be in place between 11 p.m. Wednesday and 6 a.m. Thursday. Spokespersons for both agencies didn’t answer questions about who asked for the increased security measures.

Thirteen people waited by the front entrance of the Oliver Hodge Building overnight, hoping to snag one of the few seats available to the public in the small board meeting room. They told reporters Thursday morning no one from law enforcement approached them during the alleged curfew hours, which have not been enforced in previous months, when people also have waited overnight by the building entrance before board meetings. The cable barrier also was removed about 8 a.m., those who waited overnight said.

Two KFOR journalists denied ability to question Ryan Walters after meeting

In addition to Walters declining to speak with about a dozen reporters who waited about 15 minutes after the meeting’s end to ask him questions, Walters’ spokesman, Dan Isett, also refused to allow two journalists from Oklahoma City television station KFOR into the board meeting room, instead escorting them to an auxiliary viewing room.

Isett has claimed on X (formerly known as Twitter) the station posted an untrue story this week alleging the agency was being investigated by the U.S. Department of Education. The federal agency has said there is no investigation. Isett and KFOR journalists have exchanged social-media posts about the subject as well as open-records requests to which Isett and the agency haven’t responded.

The reporters who had waited for Walters, before being told by Isett the superintendent wouldn’t speak to them, also weren’t able to ask Isett about his treatment of KFOR reporters. Isett said in an X post directed toward KFOR on Wednesday that “KFOR published a knowingly false story claiming there is a federal investigation into OSDE yesterday. Your organization will receive no further response from our agency until that story is retracted.” KFOR journalists defended their work.

This article originally appeared on Oklahoman: Ryan Walters to open school choice office within OSDE