Superintendent Ryan Walters speaks at a congressional subcommittee on education in Washington, D.C., on Tuesday. (Screenshot by Nuria Martinez-Keel/Oklahoma Voice)
OKLAHOMA CITY — Oklahoma’s state superintendent called Chinese influence a “pressing and deeply concerning” issue in American education during a congressional hearing in Washington, D.C.
State Superintendent Ryan Walters spoke to a U.S. House education subcommittee on Tuesday, alleging the Chinese Communist Party has attempted to influence learning in Tulsa Public Schools and other districts through Mandarin language programs.
The Tulsa district has denied receiving any funds from the Chinese government. The district paid for a Chinese language teacher at Booker T. Washington High School to take professional development sessions from a Confucius Classroom Coordination Office at the International Leadership of Texas Charter Schools.
Congressional Democrats said the hearing perpetuated a debunked conspiracy theory and could fuel anti-Asian American bias.
A nonprofit called the Chinese International Education Foundation manages the institute — not the government of China.
Walters and other speakers at the hearing claimed its K-12 language and cultural program, Confucius Classrooms, are part of the Chinese Communist Party’s propaganda arm.
“Through programs such as Confucius Classrooms, we are allowing a hostile foreign anti-democratic government a foothold into our schools,” Walters testified.
Walters also said Tulsa has a “disturbing connection” to the Chinese Communist Party, which he alleged whitewashes China’s history, indoctrinates American students and threatens U.S. national security.
He urged national lawmakers to ban schools from receiving money from hostile foreign governments and from entering into data-sharing agreements. The Oklahoma State Board of Education, which Walters leads, recently ordered all school districts in the state to report any financial contributions from foreign governments.
Republicans on the House panel voiced similar concerns, as did other speakers invited to the hearing — Heritage Foundation senior fellow Mike Gonzalez and Nicole Neily, executive director of Parents Defending Education.
None of Oklahoma’s all-Republican congressional delegation sits on the education subcommittee.
Congressional Democrats, though, dismissed the claims of Chinese influence as unsubstantiated.
Rep. Suzanne Bonamici, D-Oregon, noted an eight-month investigation by a Senate committee already looked into the Confucius Institute and found no threats to national security nor school curricula.
Bonamici panned the hearing as an attempt by the Republican majority to “inject culture wars and partisan politics into our public schools in a way that can fuel anti-Asian American bias.”
In a pointed line of questioning “for consistency,” Rep. Raul M. Grijalva, D-Arizona, asked Walters whether the oil and gas industry should dictate climate change curriculum, hinting it does so through PragerU, a media entity whose pro-America videos the state superintendent encouraged Oklahoma schools to use.
“These are American companies that are a benefit to the American economy, so I don’t see any issue with them having influence on our education system,” Walters responded.
Another invited speaker, Gisela Perez Kusakawa, encouraged the subcommittee to exercise caution when crafting laws and rhetoric on China.
Kusakawa, executive director of the Asian American Scholar Forum, said Asian Americans and immigrants suffer discrimination when the country’s leaders espouse anti-China language.
“For many of them, they are not differentiated between this foreign government and who they are here,” Kusakawa said. “I really ask that folks consider that even though there are real, genuine threats (from the Chinese government), there is also a real, genuine backlash that the Asian American and immigrant community faces, and this means that we have a responsibility to think on how we can have a nuanced approach moving forward.”
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