The state board of education downgraded the accreditation for Tulsa Public Schools, Oklahoma’s largest district, because of a teacher’s complaint about staff training on implicit bias, which the teacher claimed “shamed white people.”
The teacher from Memorial High School in Tulsa complained to the Oklahoma Department of Education in February that a staff training from August 2021 violated state law HB1775, which restricts conversations on race and racism. (HB1775 is sometimes known as the anti-critical race theory law.) The law wasn’t in place at the time of the training.
The state board also downgraded Mustang Public Schools’ accreditation in the same meeting after the district self-reported a violation of the law.
This is the first time Oklahoma districts have faced consequences for violating the law, and the punishment they received is harsher than the consequences written in the rules or recommended by the department. Educators across the country have been concerned about how exactly the slew of laws will apply to them, which has created a chilling effect on lessons and discussions about race and racism. This decision suggests that some of that fear is warranted.
Republican lawmakers in more than 40 states have proposed some version of Oklahoma’s law, which bans classroom conversations and staff training based on “divisive concepts,” such as the concept that someone is “inherently racist, sexist or oppressive, whether consciously or unconsciously,” or that anyone should “feel discomfort, guilt, anguish or any other form of psychological distress on account of his or her race or sex.”
Determination was a ‘close call’
The Tulsa case concerns a teacher training that included the concept of implicit bias—the idea that people can bring built-in prejudices about others to social situations without intending to.
After the teacher made the complaint directly to the state department about this training, it investigated the incident and found that a violation had occurred, although the general counsel for the State Department of Education, Brad Clark, acknowledged the determination was a “close call.”
According to state rules and the department of education’s recommendation, the consequence of a violation of HB 1775 should have been to dock Tulsa’s accreditation to “accredited with deficiency.” In Oklahoma, a district receives this accreditation if it fails to meet one or more of the standards, but the deficiency does not seriously detract from the quality of the school’s educational program.
But when the state board of education was reviewing accreditation for all Oklahoma districts at its July 28 meeting, it voted 4-2 to further downgrade Tulsa’s accreditation to “accredited with warning,” which means that the board found that the violation “seriously detracts from the quality of education.”
Board member Brian Bobek, who proposed the harsher demotion, said it was warranted because whoever took Tulsa’s implicit bias staff training is now going to be potentially biased.
“We’ve seen this district—not only with 1775 but in other ways—violate the opportunity for the students to get exceptional quality education,” said another board member, Estela Hernandez. “Accredited with warning is sufficient in this case, because we need to send a message.”
A look at the content that generated controversy
Tulsa public schools required teachers to complete training last August through a third-party vendor contracted by the district. The training included slides and accompanying audio about implicit biases.
Clark and his team determined that while the slides contained no evidence of the training having violated the law, the accompanying audio—which was not publicly released—incorporated banned concepts.
The audio included an overview of racial biases, how they were shaped by history and are present in classrooms and how they can impact student learning and outcomes if left unchecked.
It also included statistics, noting, for example, that while just 18 percent of preschool students were Black in 2015, they accounted for 42 percent of the out-of-school suspensions, that Black students were suspended three times more than White students, that Black students with disabilities are more likely to be suspended or restrained, and that teachers hold lower expectations (explicitly or implicitly) for Black and Latino children as compared to White peers.
“There is no reason to doubt those statistics are accurate, but the totality felt like the rule language that prohibits any staff development from being based on those general principles in the statute, so that’s where we landed,” Clark said in an interview with Education Week.
“This is where the difficulty comes in with the law that has seven or eight described principles,” he said.
Applying factual situations to the eight principles leaves room for interpretation and some lessons considered acceptable under Oklahoma Academic Standards could potentially be illegal under HB 1775, Clark said, although he believed that wasn’t the case with Tulsa.
In his decision, Clark wrote that the training had violated three tenets of the law: that an individual, by virtue of their race or sex, is inherently racist, sexist or oppressive, whether consciously or unconsciously, that an individual bears responsibility for actions committed in the past by other members of the same race or sex, and that anyone should feel discomfort, guilt, anguish, or any other form of psychological distress on account of their race or sex.
He also wrote that while there were no overt statements proving a direct violation of an outlawed concept, the reviewing team’s interpretation led them to believe that the training was based on the above three concepts.
Similar language in other state laws
Oklahoma’s law, along with many others with similar wording, has been widely critiqued by administrators, teachers, and lawyers as vaguely written, leaving lots of room for subjective interpretation. Teachers have also been worried about what they can say in classrooms to make sure they don’t violate the law.
But the state department’s decision in this case indicates that even if districts stick to statistics and facts about race, such as enrollment and suspension statistics for Black students, they can get in trouble for approaching the subject.
Several Oklahoma students and teachers are suing the state arguing that HB1775 is vague and overbroad, and impinges upon freedom of speech.
At the board meeting, member Carlisha Williams Bradley echoed that point, emphasizing the difference between implicit bias training and someone being inherently racist.
“Implicit bias is something that we all have. The teacher who complained stated that this was specifically speaking to white people. But in this training, what I see is that it also explicitly states that we all as individuals have implicit bias. It’s not inherent by nature, but it is based upon our lived experiences,” she said.
“I can’t say at all that...the violation seriously detracts from the quality of the school’s educational program,” she continued. “How can one teacher’s feelings of guilt or shame detract from the quality of an entire district’s education program?”
Williams Bradley and state Superintendent Joy Hofmeister were the only two that voted against the harsher punishment for Tulsa and Mustang schools.
“In Tulsa, we are teaching our children an accurate—and at times painful, difficult, and uncomfortable—history about our shared human experience. We also teach in a beautifully diverse community and need our team to work together to be prepared to do that well.
To best do that and also to meet the state’s annual requirement that school districts offer a training about “race and ethnic education,” we provided a training that included the topic of implicit bias,” said Lauren Partain, the spokesperson for Tulsa Public Schools, in an email statement.
“In this training, it is clear there is no statement or sentiment pronounced that people are racist—due to their race or any other factor. We would never support such a training.”
A ‘cross-the-line’ exercise in Mustang
Mustang Public Schools also had its accreditation downgraded to “accredited with warning” after the district internally investigated a complaint made in January against a teacher who asked students if they had ever felt discriminated against, bullied, or acted in that manner toward others.
The incident in question involved a middle school teacher conducting a Cross-the-Line activity, 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.
The question that Mustang deemed unlawful was “If you have ever been called names regarding your race, socioeconomic class, gender, sexual orientation, or physical/learning disability and felt uncomfortable, take one step back,” according to a statement the district released in response to the state department demoting its accreditation.
The district determined that the team-building classroom activity had violated the tenet of the law that prohibits teachers from making students feel “guilt or anguish” because of their race or sex. It discontinued the activity and offered teachers training on how to comply with the law, according to the statement.
Mustang Public Schools reported the findings of the investigation to the department of education, and Clark recommended that along with Tulsa, the district’s accreditations be changed to “accredited with deficiency.”
But at the state board meeting, four members decided to apply the more severe “accredited with warning” accreditation status to both Mustang and Tulsa for the sake of consistency.