Republican hopefuls for Oklahoma state superintendent of public instruction debated on education policy on Wednesday at an event hosted by NonDoc and News 9 in Oklahoma City. Watch the full event here. We used public records, interviews and other sources to fact-check some of the candidates’ claims from the debate.
Oklahoma Secretary of Education Ryan Walters, Peggs Public Schools Superintendent John Cox, Union City resident William Crozier and Shawnee Public Schools Superintendent April Grace will compete in the GOP primary on Tuesday to become the party’s nominee for state superintendant.
Claim: National teacher’s unions have “dumped money” into the Oklahoma superintendent race to oppose Walters.
Walters said: “The far left, the national teacher’s unions, have dumped money into the state to run against me.”
Fact check: Mixed
The group Oklahoma’s Children, Our Future Inc., spent $300,000 on television ads to oppose Walters before the Republican primary, according to an Oklahoma Ethics Commission filing. Because the nonprofit is organized as a 501(c)(4) social welfare group, it doesn’t have to disclose its donors to the public, making it difficult to find out where its getting funding for the ads. These kinds of organizations are sometimes called “dark money” groups for this reason.
Oklahoma’s Children, Our Future, Inc. was previously organized as a political action committee and was legally required to disclose its donors. In 2016, the group campaigned for an unsuccessful ballot measure that proposed a one-cent sales tax increase to fund education in the state. During that time, the group received some funding from the National Education Association, a labor union.
Claim: Sixty percent of all children in Oklahoma live in poverty.
Grace said: “We’ve got 60% of the kids in our state that live in poverty, so poverty across the board is an issue, no matter what kind of school we’re talking about.”
Fact check: Mixed
Grace said she got that figure based on the number of low-income students who receive free and reduced lunches across the state. And it’s true that between 2019 and 2021, about 60% of students qualified for free or reduced lunches in Oklahoma, according to data from the State Department of Education. That number dropped to about 52% for the 2021-2022 school year.
But the income limits schools use to determine which students qualify for free or reduced lunches are above the federal poverty line, which is $27,750 a year for a family of four in 2022.
About 20% of Oklahoma children live below the poverty line, according to the left-leaning think tank Oklahoma Policy Institute. Social service advocates have argued that the federal poverty line is too low and does not capture the real number of people living with economic hardship or who could be categorized as low-income.
– Kayla Branch
Claim: The state issued about 3,500 emergency teaching certificates last year.
Cox said: “We’ve got to change the message and really value public education, put our teachers back up on a pedestal and let them know that they are valued. With around 3,500 emergency last year, it’s just made it very difficult.”
Fact check: Mostly true
Cox was close to the right number. State education officials approved 3,833 emergency teaching certificates last school year, a new record over the previous 3,321 emergency certificates awarded in the 2019-2020 school year, according to data compiled by the Oklahoma State School Boards Association. Emergency certificates allow people with at least a bachelor’s degree to work as teachers before they complete educational requirements and become fully certified to teach in the state.
Claim: ClassWallet, a company that had a state contract to distribute federal pandemic relief money to families for educational expenses, was working outside its contract and letting parents make improper purchases.
Walters said: “When I came in to become secretary (of Education) … I looked over every contract to make sure every taxpayer dollar was accounted for and that every program was working for our kids. During that point in time I found a contract where a vendor was saying that they were doing something and I began to look at the reports coming in and saw that they were working outside their contract. They allowed expenditures to happen that it said clearly in their contract they were supposed to not allow to happen, it was their responsibility.”
Fact check: False
The Frontier and Oklahoma Watch published a joint investigation in May based on extensive documents and interviews that found Walters was aware of the state’s contract with ClassWallet prior to being named Secretary of Education. After Stitt appointed him Secretary of Education, Walters directed ClassWallet to allow parents to purchase any items from vendors on the company’s platform.
Records show that a ClassWallet representative sought guidance from Walters on what items parents should be allowed to purchase. Walters responded in an email that parents should get “Blanket approval with vendors on your platform.” Furthermore, ClassWallet’s contract with the state only vaguely outlined what parents would be allowed to purchase, stating that funds would be distributed to “qualified families to purchase educational supplies, materials and technology.” The state’s contract with ClassWallet required the company to provide a fiscal management and payment system for parents “to purchase educational resources other than tuition such as technology, supplies books, etc.”
Claim: A pending audit of the Oklahoma State Department of Education that Gov. Kevin Stitt requested in 2021 is the first time in history the department has been audited.
Walters said: “This is why the governor and I thought it was so crucial to call for an audit of the State Department of Education — the first time in our history that department has been audited.”
Fact check: Mixed
A group of Republican state lawmakers called for an investigative audit of the Oklahoma State Department of Education in November 2020 after State Auditor Cindy Byrd announced she found Epic Charter Schools had misspent public funds.
In September 2021, Stitt announced that he had asked Byrd to conduct the audit, to determine whether the Education Department is “effectively requiring consistent application and timely accountability.”
“This type of audit has never been conducted in the history of Oklahoma and, perhaps, the nation,” Byrd said.
While it’s true that the “investigative audit” the state auditor is conducting is unique, the Education Department has been audited dozens of times in the last five years by both state and federal auditors, according to the agency.
True: A claim that is backed up by factual evidence
Mostly True: A claim that is mostly true but also contains some inaccurate details
Mixed: A claim that contains a combination of accurate and inaccurate or unproven information
True but misleading: A claim that is factually true but omits critical details or context
Mostly False: A claim that is mostly false but also contains some accurate details
False: A claim that has no basis in fact