Ryan Walters, Gov. Kevin Stitt’s secretary of education and a Republican candidate for state superintendent, opened a recent stump speech in Edmond with praise for a bill Oklahoma enacted this year that bans teaching that one race is superior to another. 

House Bill 1775 has sometimes been called a ban on teaching critical race theory, the idea that racism is not just a result of individual prejudice but also ingrained in systems, such as housing policies and the criminal justice system. Critical race theory isn’t explicitly mentioned in the bill. 

But Walters acknowledged the concept’s role in the new law. 

“We were one of the first states in the country to ban the concepts of critical race theory,” said Walters, drawing applause from the parents packed into a small Edmond church sanctuary, including from Rep. Kevin West, R-Moore, the House author of the bill. 

Republicans flipped the governor’s seat in Virginia earlier this month, where a large number of voters were most concerned with critical race theory, according to exit polls from the Associated Press. In Oklahoma, candidates are tapping into a new spirit of education activism among conservatives that has already altered elections in other states and could impact races here next year.  

Fifty-eight percent of Oklahoma voters surveyed by conservative pollster Cole Hargrave Snodgrass & Associates said they were opposed to critical race theory teachings in public schools. 

In interpreting the polling data, Pat McFerron, president of the firm, wrote that critical race theory “spells trouble for Democratic candidates.” 

Next year’s gubernatorial election is shaping up to be between Stitt and State Superintendent Joy Hofmeister, who recently converted to the Democratic Party in hopes of winning its nomination. 

Hofmeister called HB 1775 a “recipe for problems” in a recent interview with The Frontier, and criticized lawmakers for rushing it through without consulting educators.

Stitt’s campaign has been mostly silent about Hofmeister’s candidacy and her criticisms of his education policies.

“Gov. Stitt is not running against Joy, she has to first earn the trust and support of her new party and garner her endorsement to be in the general,” said Donelle Harder, Stitt’s campaign spokesperson. 

Stitt said history lessons should include tough conversations about past racism but that HB 1775 was necessary because some teaching on race and gender is dividing students.

“We can and should teach this history without labeling a young child as an oppressor,” Stitt said after signing the bill this year

Whether the issue remains relevant in a gubernatorial election still a year away could depend on if similar legislation is brought forward next legislative session and what the state Board of Education, which Hofmeister is a member of, does in the coming weeks to finalize new school rules required by HB 1775. 

In a statement to The Frontier, Hofmeister said she would vote in favor of the new rules. 

“Let’s be clear. I am opposed to critical race theory in schools and the adoption of any radical political agenda as part of the K-12 curriculum,” Hofmeister said.  “I’m focused now, where I’ve always been, on raising academic outcomes and preparing Oklahoma’s children for the future. Of course I anticipate voting in favor of rules that would uphold the law.”

Linda Murphy, the state GOP’s education committee chair, said she isn’t sure how big an issue critical race theory will be going forward after the passage of HB 1775. 

“I think it was (a major issue) until the bill passed but now there is an assurance to parents that this won’t be in our schools,” Murphy told The Frontier. 

Themes of critical race theory are not just bubbling at the state level but also in local school board races. 

Kendra Wesson, a volunteer with the conservative group School Boards 4 Kids, believes universities are indoctrinating teachers with views on critical race theory and encouraging students to use their preferred pronouns. 

“These freshly indoctrinated teachers are now spreading their beliefs to our children,” Wesson told the crowd at the Edmond forum. 

Amiee Drake, a mother of three school-age children in Edmond, said she isn’t sure who will get her vote for governor next year. 

But she said critical race theory isn’t an issue she’s concerned about. 

“We probably need to have more frank conversations about race in school,” said Drake, who is white. “But I’m more concerned about getting more funding in the classroom and supporting public (schools).”