The president of Tulsa Public Schools’ Board of Education is asking the State Board of Education to reverse its decision to penalize the district for allegedly violating a state statute meant to limit discussion on race and gender in public school classrooms.
In an email obtained by the Tulsa World, TPS board President Stacey Woolley made the request Wednesday to all seven members of the state board, asking them to reconsider their decision to accept a determination from State Department of Education General Counsel Brad Clark that an August 2021 professional development session on implicit bias was not in compliance with House Bill 1775.
Adopted in 2021, HB 1775 prohibits teaching that one race or sex is inherently superior to another. It also prohibits causing a student to feel guilty or uncomfortable because of their race or gender, as well as teaching that anyone is inherently racist, sexist or oppressive, whether consciously or otherwise.
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“Implicit bias, which appears to be the issue at hand, is not about a person’s bias that is informed or inherent in their race, sex or other inherited trait,” Woolley wrote. “It is solely about one’s lived experiences and how those experiences shape their view of the world. It is how we generalize behaviors and stereotypes that we experience in our own environment. This is not what the bill or your resultant rules claim to prohibit.”
At the board’s June meeting, Clark told the board that his office had determined that the district had violated the law with an implicit bias professional development session offered in August 2021 through a third-party vendor after investigating a complaint submitted in February from a science teacher at Memorial High School.
Under the law and administrative rules previously approved by the State Board of Education, a violation of HB 1775 is considered a deficiency with respect to accreditation.
However, the State Board of Education voted on July 28 to accredit both TPS and Mustang Public Schools with a warning specifically because of violations of that law.
In both his remarks to the State Board of Education and the notice of violation letter sent to the complaining teacher and TPS on July 7 via email, Clark said the content of the slides shown in the training session did not constitute a violation.
However, in the letter, Clark noted that audio from the session could be construed to violate the provisions barring making someone feel “discomfort, guilt, anguish or any other form of psychological distress” due to their race or sex and the concept that someone is inherently racist, sexist or oppressive, whether consciously or unconsciously, by virtue of their race or sex.
Specifically cited in the letter were discussions about suspension statistics, stereotypes that can still be found in classrooms and the need for additional supports to better adapt to changing student demographics.
“To be clear, while there may not be express statements that an individual is inherently racist because of their race, consciously or unconsciously, there is evidence making it more likely than not that the training incorporated and/or is based on such concepts,” Clark wrote.
An open records request from the Tulsa World for that audio is still pending.
Citing a limited access agreement with the third-party vendor, the audio was not provided to state school board members at the July 28 meeting. That in turn prompted an objection from Tulsa-based state board member Carlisha Williams Bradley, one of two board members who voted against demoting TPS’ accreditation status.
The missing audio was also referenced in Woolley’s request for reconsideration.
“It does not seem that the evidence was actually presented to you (which might explain how the vote was achieved) but that the teacher’s statement of the event and the feelings it caused said teacher was enough to satisfy a breach of the law,” Woolley wrote.
When reached Thursday afternoon, a spokesman for the Oklahoma State Department of Education said there is nothing precluding the board from reconsidering its decision, which could in turn impact TPS’ accreditation status.
However, he also noted that the department’s attorneys could not recall the board’s ever granting a mid-year upgrade to a district’s accreditation status.
The first day of school for TPS is Aug. 18. The next regularly scheduled meeting of the State Board of Education is Aug. 25.
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