May 2024 Church & State Magazine - May 2024

Okla. education official spends taxpayer money to build media profile


Walters: Angling to be a TV star?

Ryan Walters, Oklahoma’s superintendent of public instruction, has spent $30,000 in taxpayer money to hire a public-relations firm in Washington, D.C., to book him on national news talk shows.

Walters, a Christian Nationalist who has aggressively pursued anti-LGBTQ+ policies, has been getting attention lately — but perhaps not the kind he seeks. In the wake of the tragic suicide of Nex Benedict, a 16-year-old nonbinary student at Owasso High School who died a day after they were beaten by fellow students after months of bullying, people are asking pointed questions about how Walters’ constant stream of anti-LGBTQ+ rhetoric and mean-spirited policies might have contributed to Benedict’s death. (Benedict used they/them pronouns.)

Some legislators in Oklahoma are starting to toy with the idea of reining Walters in.

Oklahoma Speaker of the House Charles McCall (R-Atoka) said he isn’t happy to see Walters spending taxpayer money on a self-promotion campaign, and vowed to pursue legislation to put limits on Walters’ spending, reported KFOR-TV in Oklahoma City.

“Education — everyone is a stakeholder in education,” McCall told reporters in late March. “We should not be expending state monies, taxpayer dollars, for personal promotion.”

KFOR reported, “Walters spent thousands in taxpayer dollars on travel expenses. That included expenses for attending a movie premiere and recording a podcast in Texas, attending a Moms for Liberty conference in Pennsylvania, and traveling to Washington, D.C., to meet with a guest-booker for Fox News.”

Walters is also facing growing public criticism for Benedict’s death. In March, Sean Cummings, vice mayor of The Village, a small community near Oklahoma City, attended a meeting of the Oklahoma Board of Education and confronted Walters directly.

“You emboldened these three girls [who assaulted Benedict] yourself,” Cummings said. “The blood is on you guys.”

Cummings added, “It’s already difficult to be in high school. It’s very difficult to be different, but when somebody is attacked for being different, you are liable.”

On its “Wall of Separation” blog, AU speculated that Walter seeks a national profile.

“What is Walters’ endgame? Perhaps he’s interested in riding the lucrative right-wing gravy train like Sarah Palin, who abandoned the governorship of Alaska to become a highly compensated culture warrior,” read the post. “Or perhaps he has his eye on some higher office or a slot in a possible second Donald Trump administration. Whatever his goals are, Oklahomans — and indeed all Americans — should be alarmed that Walters is willing to toss aside the rights of transgender/nonbinary kids to reach them.”

Americans United and dozens of other organizations have called on Oklahoma lawmakers to oust Walters from office.

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