Equity & Diversity

State Chief Targets DEI Initiatives. Here’s How District Leaders Are Responding

By Eesha Pendharkar — May 23, 2023 7 min read
Lessons on the dry-erase board in history teacher Kala Hester's classroom at Millwood High School on April 20, 2022 in Oklahoma City. Oklahoma schools will have to report all DEI-related spending, per a new rule.
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Some Oklahoma superintendents are concerned about what the state’s mandate to report spending on diversity, equity, and inclusion programs might mean for their ability to support their students.

All Oklahoma districts will need to submit a list of their DEI-related expenditures over the 2022-23 school year by next month, according to a new rule passed by the state’s board of education in April. The list will have to include money spent on staff, materials, and third party contractors or vendors.

That rule was proposed by state superintendent Ryan Walters, who heads the Oklahoma department of education, to the state’s board of education at its April 27 meeting.

“It would be more accurate to call them divide, exclude, and indoctrinate. That’s really what these programs are,” Walters said to board members at the April meeting.

“What these programs are, are programs developed by radical leftists to indoctrinate our kids into not believing in themselves, and their individual identity and to be successful on their own merits. What it seeks to do is divide and is Marxist at its core, and we have to reject this in our schools.”

The rule was approved by the board on April 27, and will require all districts to list the amount of local, state, and federal funds, and the amount of private funds dedicated to each of the DEI-related categories. Districts will also have to list the names of any district personnel who spent at least 25 percent of their time operating or assisting with a DEI program, and the names of all the third party contractors who provided DEI services in the school district during the 2022-23 school year. Finally, districts will have to explain if they plan to continue these expenditures during the 2023-24 school year.

Two superintendents told Education Week they’re unsure about the purpose behind the rule, and are waiting for further guidance from the state. They are unsure what it means for their DEI initiatives starting next year, and what that may mean for employees who work with marginalized students in their districts. Both superintendents emphasized that the DEI programs in their district were not meant to indoctrinate students, as Walters suggested, but to make sure all students felt represented at school.

The state’s department of education did not respond to multiple requests for comment.

The first drafts of the itemized spending lists are due June 9. If a district indicates it spends no money on DEI, it is exempt from having to report a finalized list on Sept. 1, according to Walters’ memo to the board proposing the spending rule.

The DEI-related initiatives districts have to report are not limited to the classroom. In the board meeting, members confirmed that any money spent on DEI-related teacher training, or outside agencies consulting with districts about how to make curriculum more inclusive would also have to be reported.

Walters’ memo to the board defines DEI as “instruction or programs teaching that meritocracy, equality of opportunity, or freedom of speech is harmful to society or subgroups within society” and “anything that the school or district has labeled as involving or as related to DEI, whether for state or federal purposes.”

DEI initiatives draw backlash in Republican-led states

Over the past two years, some DEI initiatives in Republican-led states have been swept up in the nationwide push against “critical race theory,” which experts say is a term mistakenly used to refer to these initiatives. Oklahoma is one of the 18 states that has passed laws restricting lessons and teacher training that addresses certain topics about race and racism.

Although DEI initiatives are not directly mentioned in those laws, those programs and the term “equity” in particular have been targeted in the state and beyond.

Tulsa Public Schools in Oklahoma had its accreditation downgraded last year because the state board of education decided that its teacher training on implicit bias violated state law. Mustang Public Schools met the same fate for a cross-the-line exercise, which allows students to see the ways they’re similar to and different from each other by taking a step back or forward depending on how they respond to questions. The larger the gap, the bigger the difference.

It’s the same groups of people who were attacking CRT in public schools that have now turned their attention to DEI initiatives, according to Mid Del Schools superintendent Rick Cobb.

“I think that there are groups out there that love to mischaracterize what we do in public schools,” he said. “And now DEI is just the next thing that that same group of people fundamentally is attacking. And I would say that either they don’t know what it means or they intentionally mislead about what it means.”

Districts are not indoctrinating kids, district leader says

Lawton Public Schools is a district serving more than 13,000 students in southwest Oklahoma. About a third of its students have families in the military, so the district runs special support programs for those students, said superintendent Kevin Hime. The district is one of seven designated Purple Star districts. The Purple Star program is designed to help schools meet the educational and personal needs of military-connected children during their transition to a new school.

Hime said he employs a staff member who works with military students specifically, and with other minority students, including African American and Native American students. Her duties involve communicating with students and their families to serve their individual needs, Hime said. However, the district did not report any DEI-related spending, or list her as one of the personnel working toward DEI, because Hime said that employee, nor any other employee, spends any time on DEI the way Walters defined it.

“A lot of people are wanting to know exactly what he’s calling DEI, because … he said ‘divide, exclude, and indoctrinate,’ and I would think none of us are spending any money on that,” Hime said.

“True diversity, equity, and inclusion that DEI stands for is a very active program for military students because ... when they move to a new school, you want to include them and feel like they’re part of you.”

Hime said his district will continue working toward the best interest of Lawton students while awaiting more guidance from the state department. If the definition changes, he may consider reporting some expenditures, such as the military liaison, he said.

“It’s just kind of stressful to my teachers because we want our teachers to be equitable and try to create a sense of fairness,” he said.

“To make people question what they’re doing when they’re trying to work for kids is always scary, when we have a shortage of people who are working for kids.”

Superintendents are worried about continuing to support students

The Mid Del school district next to Oklahoma City serves about 11,000 students, 36 percent of whom are white, 31 percent Black, and 15 percent Hispanic. This is the first school year that the majority non-white district has employed an equity officer.

In her first year, the equity officer has examined data on access to Advanced Placement programs, data on suspensions, and school discipline. For example, one of her initiatives this school year has been to work closely with the transportation department after some school bus routes saw more students being disciplined compared with others, according to Cobb, Mid Del’s superintendent. That has helped the district fix some issues of communication in terms of discipline, so it can have fewer students missing time on the bus and also missing school, Cobb said.

While the district has reported her salary as a DEI-related expense to the state, Cobb is not concerned because none of the district’s initiatives are violating any laws or any state regulations, he said.

If there is a ban imposed on DEI spending, the district will continue those initiatives that the current equity officer has undertaken, Cobb said, and will consult with the district’s legal counsel.

“I want every student to feel included, seen, and valued. I want to pursue initiatives that help us staff our schools in a way that is reflective of our community and want to examine policies, procedures, and outcomes that might help us see some blind spots to help us better serve our kids. We’re not trying to do anything nefarious with that.”

“It’s not my desire as superintendent to make the state superintendent happy. It’s my desire as superintendent to make this community feel like the school district is doing the things that they would want.”

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