Contradicting earlier statements, the Oklahoma State Department of Education now admits that audio from a Tulsa teacher training found to violate a state law banning some teachings about race was actually the same as text from slides that it determined were OK.
“To clarify, the audio was the same,” Department of Education spokeswoman Leslie Berger told The Frontier on Friday.
Brad Clark, general counsel for the Department of Education said in a July 7 letter that slides from a teacher training on racial bias did not violate the law, but that audio the agency reviewed “included, incorporated or is based” on banned ideas.
After reviewing the training, The Tulsa World reported that the audio narration was actually the same as text from the slides. But the Department Education at first told the newspaper the audio was different from the text, with a spokesman telling the outlet “the audio reviewed by department’s legal office was not a verbatim reading of the slides.”
But that wasn’t true.
Berger said the staffer who told the Tulsa World that audio from the training was different had not spoken with the legal department before providing that statement.
The Department of Education issued a statement on Aug. 6 reversing its earlier comments about the audio. The agency said it still stands by its conclusion that the training violated the law.
“the audio recording, which was reviewed weeks after review of the slide-deck, had a greater impact on the agency’s review team,” the statement said. “The concepts put forth, regardless of whether read or heard, violated the spirit of the law.”
In July, the State Board of Education voted to downgrade Tulsa Public Schools’ accreditation status to “accredited with a warning,” a harsher punishment than what staff recommended.
At the meeting, Clark told the board that “the audio portion particularly” violated House Bill 1775, a law Oklahoma enacted in 2021 that outlaws teaching concepts about race and gender perceived to be divisive.
He also told board members that copyright law prevented him from sharing the audio.
Before eventually voting 4 to 2 to in favor of the downgrade, some board members expressed concerns about not being able to hear audio from the training course.
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One board member, Carlisha Williams Bradley, who voted against downgrading Tulsa’s accreditation, said during the meeting she had concerns about voting based on evidence the Department of Education had not provided.
“(Clark) doesn’t have evidence,” Williams Bradley, who is from Tulsa, told the board. “He said he inferred from listening to the recording, that this is what the training is based on. That’s not evidence.”
Williams Bradley told The Frontier she believed the board’s decision, based on information from the Department of Education, was “unjust” and that the process was biased against Tulsa Public Schools.
“The board did not have the information necessary to do our job well and make an informed decision to accept or reject OSDE’s accreditation recommendations,” she said. “Sadly, this is another proof point of decisions being made at this table in service of political agendas, not children.”
Rob Crissinger, a spokesman for the Department of Education, said the decision by the Board of Education to give Tulsa Public School a harsher punishment than recommended “underscores how the vague language of HB 1775 invites imprecise judgment calls, which in turn can have a chilling effect on classroom instruction.”
The Tulsa World reported last week that Tulsa Public Schools board president Stacey Woolley had asked the state board to reverse its punishment. But an OSDE spokeswoman told The Frontier on Monday the request was not made “according to an established process.”
“As far as the board taking it up again before the next accreditation vote … that’s not something that’s been done before,” Berger said.
“We want Tulsa families to know that despite the continued political drama and the worst possible conditions educators have ever faced in Oklahoma, we will stay focused on what matters most — our students,” Tulsa Public Schools spokeswoman Emma Garrett-Nelson told The Frontier in an email on Friday. “They deserve nothing less.”