Ray Carter | March 24, 2021
Educators say Oklahoma public schools are deeply racist
In a recent Twitter chat, numerous Oklahoma educators said the state’s public schools are “steeped” in racism with one administrator vowing to make controversial “antiracism” training mandatory for all staff.
Participants said everything from school discipline policies to a state law requiring schools to teach children to read were forms of systemic racism.
Even as they described public schools as tools of systemic racist oppression, the mostly white educators who participated in the online discussion also attacked school-choice programs that have increased educational opportunity for low-income and minority students in Oklahoma.
The Twitter chat, which used the oklaed hashtag, was described as a “deep conversation about systemic racism” and hosted by Telannia Norfar, an inner-city math teacher in Oklahoma City. Aside from Norfar, most individuals who participated in the discussion were white.
While promoting the Twitter event, Norfar tweeted, “America just keeps showing itself and Oklahoma is no exception to the rule. From spitting and the N-word at championship games to legislative bills targeted at protests, Oklahoma is steep in systemic racism. So what are teachers and schools going to do about it?”
Oklahoma public schools: Designed for ‘white supremacy’?
The first question that Norfar posed read, “Merriam-Webster defines racism as the systemic oppression of a racial group to the social, economic and political advantage of another. What policies are implemented by your school/district or OK law that oppress students of color? How/When are we going to change them?”
Craig McVay, the superintendent of El Reno schools, responded, “Most of our student discipline and dress code policies are steeped in covert systemic racism.”
Stephanie Hinton, the early childhood coordinator for Oklahoma City Public Schools, responded, “RSA, testing policies/legislations, dress codes, suspension policies, the way we structure the school day ...”
RSA refers to the Reading Sufficiency Act. That Oklahoma law prevents schools from advancing most students to the fourth grade unless a student reads at least at a second-grade level.
Hinton later expanded on her comment, tweeting, “RSA is systemic racism at its finest. Students or color are less likely to have access to high-quality child care in our state (research child care desserts) and our less likely to participate in PK—districts don’t/can’t provide transportation.” (Typos in original; PK refers to pre-Kindergarten.)
“... the educational system was built on and for white supremacy.” —Vanessa Perez, Lawton Public Schools
That prompted retired teacher Claudia Swisher to tweet, “Another reason to suspend all testing...especially anything that has high stakes attached.”
Oklahoma’s reading law was strengthened in 2011 to prevent most students from advancing to fourth grade if they cannot read at least at a second-grade level. That change took full effect in 2014. Prior to that change in the law, many students were simply promoted to the fourth grade regardless of reading ability, and a disproportionate share of students reading far below grade level were African-American.
After the reading law was changed, 2015 National Assessment of Educational Progress reading scores showed Oklahoma experienced the third-largest gain nationally in fourth-grade reading scores.
Shawn Hime, executive director of the Oklahoma State School Boards Association (OSSBA), responded, “#OklaEd needs to take a fresh look at all policies, state and district and eliminate anything that could create bias. We can’t keep doing things because that how we’ve always don it.” (Typos in original.)
The OSSBA is funded with payments from school districts and provides a variety of services, including lobbying at the Oklahoma Legislature.
Jena Nelson, a Deer Creek Public School teacher who was named the Oklahoma Teacher of the Year in 2020, responded, “I believe tying your driver’s license to your 8th grade reading state test is terrible.” That drew a quick response from Rick Cobb, superintendent of Mid-Del schools, who wrote, “I completely agree.”
In her fourth question Norfar focused on colleges, asking, “What structures need to change there as well as how can teacher ed programs train the next generation better as well as recruit POC more?” (POC refers to “persons of color.”)
Vanessa Perez, the integration technology specialist for Lawton Public Schools, tweeted in response, “Teacher Ed needs to explicitly interrogate how the educational system was built on and for white supremacy.”
Mandatory ‘antiracism’ training?
The second question Norfar tweeted stated, “Our current system constantly trains us on supporting systematic racism so how are we going to retrain ourselves? Let’s talk.”
Brandon Carey, an OSSBA staff attorney who previously served as general counsel for Oklahoma City Public Schools, responded, “Professional development in this area, provided by those that have experienced oppression, should be an ongoing and continuous. The racial caste system is so ingrained in our society that it can only be overcome with vigilance and continuous self reflection.” (Typo in original.)
In response, Cobb tweeted, “This will be a major emphasis in Mid-Del moving forward. Anti-racism needs to be part of every on-boarding and continuing education program for all level of district employees.”
Hime responded, “First and foremost we ALL have to be willing to have the direct and many times uncomfortable conversations about implicit bias. History proves lip service and ignoring it does not work. This is an everyday issue. Silence is complicity.”
“Antiracism” training has been criticized for fostering toxic racial relations.
In 2020, Frederick M. Hess, the director of Education Policy Studies at the American Enterprise Institute, wrote that “‘anti-racism,’ for all its high-minded claims and surface appeal, proves to be, on close examination, a farrago of reductive dogmatism, coercion, and anti-intellectual zealotry that’s remarkably unconcerned with either improving schooling or ameliorating prejudice.”
Hess said that “much of what passes for anti-racist education is a poisonous exercise in caricature and rank bigotry, with troubling consequences for prosaic educational activities like teacher training, grading, and research.”
He noted antiracism materials used by the Denver Public Schools taught educators that “the belief that there is such a thing as being objective,” distinguishing between “good/bad” and “right/wrong,” and valuing an “emphasis on being polite” are all distinctive characteristics of white culture.
Hess noted that Glenn Singleton, president of the racial-sensitivity training entity Courageous Conversation, has declared that “scientific, linear thinking” and “cause and effect” are a “hallmark of whiteness.” And Laurie Rubel, a professor of math at Brooklyn College, has said that declaring “2 + 2 = 4” is a form of “white supremacist patriarchy.”
In contrast, Hess noted that surveys show black parents are slightly more likely than white parents to think it important to teach children traits such as “hard work” and “persistence.”
Is “2 + 2 = 4” a form of “white supremacist patriarchy”?
In 2020, Laura McDermott, a New Hampshire high school English teacher who previously embraced “antiracism” in her classroom, warned that it results in increased racism and educational harm.
“Antiracism ideology is stemming from a kind of revised postmodernist philosophy (and from that, Critical Race Theory),” McDermott wrote. “Postmodernists argue that there is no such thing as objective truth—truth is merely a narrative held by the groups who hold the power in society. While postmodernism is a great literary lens in which to discuss different historical narratives, I am hoping that educators can see that this also brings with it dangerous consequences. By denying objective truth, we are now going to deny the scientific method.”
McDermott warned that antiracism “considers critical thinking, logic, and science to be ‘white,’” and that students subjected to antiracist education “are learning some regressive, racist ideas.”
Even as they call public schools ‘racist,’ chat participants oppose giving students alternatives
In the third question Norfar posted, she asked educators what “code” is used to justify racial segregation in schools. Narfar stated, “Every year, I hear new ‘code’ words that to me just say, I don't want to be with POC.”
In response, Cobb wrote, “’Opportunity Scholarships’ is code for ‘help privileged kids get away from less privileged kids.’ ‘School choice’ is code for ... well, pretty much the same thing. ‘Accountability’ is code for ‘road map for privileged parents to know where to avoid.’”
Swisher responded that school-choice programs “have deep roots in oppression & segregation.”
Yet data shows the students receiving increased educational opportunity through Oklahoma’s school-choice programs are largely from low-income families, a group that is statistically more likely to include racial minorities.
The beneficiaries of the “Stay in School” program launched last year by Gov. Kevin Stitt, which used a small share of Oklahoma’s federal bailout funds to pay for private-school tuition, were overwhelmingly from very low-income families.
A report released by the Oklahoma Private School Accreditation Commission showed 57 percent of Stay in School scholarship recipients were from families that qualified for the federal free-and-reduced lunch program—meaning a family of four with $48,470 or less in annual income. More than one out of every five recipients came from a home with income at 100 percent of the federal poverty level (FPL) or less, meaning a family of four with $26,200 or less in annual income.
Seventy-two percent of charter-school students in Oklahoma are considered “economically disadvantaged,” according to data released by the Oklahoma Public Charter School Association. And a majority of students attending charter schools in Oklahoma are racial minorities. While 50 percent of all students statewide are white, just 41 percent of charter-school students are white. The share of black students attending charter schools is more than double the rate statewide, and more than one-in-four charter-school students is Hispanic.
Oklahoma law also provides a tax credit to individuals and businesses that donate to organizations that fund private-school scholarships. The law requires that most of those scholarships go to low-income children.
One scholarship-granting organization, the Opportunity Scholarship Fund, reports that 56 percent of its scholarship recipients qualify for free-and-reduced lunches.
The tax-credit scholarship program run by the Archdiocese of Oklahoma City reports that 64 percent of its scholarship recipients qualified for free-and-reduced lunches.
Director, Center for Independent Journalism
Ray Carter is the director of OCPA’s Center for Independent Journalism. He has two decades of experience in journalism and communications. He previously served as senior Capitol reporter for The Journal Record, media director for the Oklahoma House of Representatives, and chief editorial writer at The Oklahoman. As a reporter for The Journal Record, Carter received 12 Carl Rogan Awards in four years—including awards for investigative reporting, general news reporting, feature writing, spot news reporting, business reporting, and sports reporting. While at The Oklahoman, he was the recipient of several awards, including first place in the editorial writing category of the Associated Press/Oklahoma News Executives Carl Rogan Memorial News Excellence Competition for an editorial on the history of racism in the Oklahoma legislature.