Gov. Kevin Stitt has replaced a member of the State Board of Education who was active in efforts to keep private Christian schools from participating in a state program for children with special needs.
In an executive order filed Dec. 3, Stitt removed Kurt Bollenbach from the State Board of Education and replaced him with Melissa Crabtree of Enid, an educator whose career has included working with children with special needs. Stitt’s order said the change was “effective immediately.”
“Melissa Crabtree is a former teacher who is passionate about using her experience in the classroom to improve educational outcomes for all Oklahoma students," said Charlie Hannema, chief of communications for Stitt. “The governor believes she will be a great addition to the State Board of Education and appreciates Mr. Bollenbach’s service to our state.”
The change comes the same week that Attorney General Mike Hunter issued a formal opinion declaring the Oklahoma State Department of Education (OSDE) illegally imposed new regulations on schools involved in the Lindsey Nicole Henry (LNH) Scholarships for Students with Disabilities program.
The LNH program provides scholarships to students with special needs and foster children, allowing them to attend private schools. Under state law, participating private schools must comply with the antidiscrimination provisions of a section of federal law that bars discrimination “on the ground of race, color, or national origin.”
However, under the leadership of State Superintendent of Public Instruction Joy Hofmeister, the OSDE drafted new regulations in 2019 that expanded that list to cover nine categories, including “religion” and “sexual orientation.” Those changes effectively barred schools that adhere to historic Christian teachings from participating in the program.
Agency officials claimed the new restrictions were required due to an executive order issued during the administration of former President Bill Clinton.
But Hunter’s opinion noted that “federal statutes cannot be amended or expanded by Executive Order” and said the OSDE rule “misinterprets both federal law and the statute authorizing the Henry Program, and was therefore beyond the authority of the Department to promulgate under the Administrative Procedures Act.”
Hunter’s opinion echoed a previous Oct. 21 memo issued by his office to OSDE. Officials at the agency publicly posted that memo in November, then pulled it off the agency’s website, claiming attorney-client privilege meant it was not a public record.
As a member of the State Board of Education, Bollenbach actively advocated for enforcement of the regulations Hunter found were unlawfully adopted.
At the September meeting of the State Board of Education, Bollenbach called for rejecting the applications of two Christian schools to participate in the LNH program, noting that one of the schools had a policy that its staff members must be “mature Christian teachers.” Bollenbach said that policy “says we are discriminating against other religions or nonreligions.” He also specified that the schools did not have anti-discrimination policies regarding sexual orientation.
The Oklahoma Education Association (OEA), which has been a vocal opponent of many efforts to provide in-person instruction to students in public schools as well as school-choice policies, appeared to object to Bollenbach’s removal from the board.
On the group’s Facebook page, OEA posted a news story on the new appointment along with the message, “WHAT. IS. HAPPENING.”
Legislative Democrats issued a statement to decry Bollenbach’s removal. Sen. Carri Hicks, D-Oklahoma City, described Bollenbach as “a strong ally.” House Minority Leader Emily Virgin, D-Norman, said Stitt was “choosing to replace board members as they move away from his point of view,” and claimed Bollenbach’s removal would “undermine the authority” of Hofmeister.
On her Facebook page, Crabtree posted a copy of Stitt’s order, writing, “Well, this just happened. An opportunity I wasn’t even looking for, but one for which I am thankful! I’m humbled, still surprised, and so excited!”
She added that she wants “to steward this well,” since board decisions that affect children have “a generational impact.”
Crabtree’s biographical information indicates she previously worked as a special education teacher at two different school districts in Tennessee.
In a Nov. 22 post, Crabtree wrote, “The absolute most life giving thing for me is teaching kiddos with disabilities, which I haven’t been involved with for the last 3 years but spent 5th grade through age 41 doing in one capacity or another! I love to teach a skill and watch someone work their way through learning it.”
Crabtree has also been a vocal critic of mask mandates in the Enid area. The State Board of Education has recommended that schools use masks, but has chosen not to impose a statewide mandate, leaving those decisions up to local districts. Most schools have chosen to require masks to varying degrees.
In a Nov. 21 post, Crabtree noted there was little difference in the per-capita rate of COVID-19 infection in areas of Oklahoma with mask mandates versus those without.
“If mandates worked, they would work all the time,” Crabtree wrote. “Have all of our experts forgotten the scientific method?”
In that post, she also noted that Enid’s numbers “are almost identical to the mask mandated cities this week.”
The state epidemiology and surveillance report for the week of Nov. 20 to 26 showed that the per-capita rate of COVID-19 infection was identical in areas with mask mandates and areas that do not mandate masks. The seven-day average number of cases in both areas was 74.6 cases per 100,000 population.
The per-capita rate of COVID-19 infection has surged from 18.1 cases per 100,000 in mask-mandate communities at the start of September to 74.6 cases as of Nov. 25.
Even without mandates, surveys of Facebook users show that 85 percent of Oklahomans report wearing a mask most or all of the time while in public.
“Stop saying the people not mandating are uncaring and the cause of these rises,” Crabtree wrote in a Nov. 20 Facebook post. “It’s just not true! It doesn’t hurt my feelings, because I learned in third grade to do what I know is right, whether or not it met with everyone's approval. But it’s an emotional argument, and you don’t make policy based on emotional arguments.”
NOTE: This story has been updated to include the response of legislative Democrats.