State Superintendent Ryan Walters jetted to Washington D.C. for media appearances and policy meetings, hobnobbed with conservative pundits at a movie premiere in Texas and spoke at conferences on education reform in Philadelphia and Denver — all while billing Oklahoma for his travel.
Walters filed more than $4,000 in claims for out-of-state travel expenses during his first year in office, according to reimbursement forms obtained by The Frontier. He expensed the trips despite an order from the Governor’s office banning public spending for most out-of-state travel.
- Walters claimed $489 in travel reimbursements to cover the cost of mileage, per diem and a hotel room in the Dallas area in April 2023 and attend the premiere of the anti-abortion horror film Nefarious. The film was shot in Oklahoma City and is about a serial killer who is set for execution but is possessed by a demon.
- He spent $1,102 for airfare, lodging and other expenses for a trip to National Harbor, Maryland, later that same month to speak at a conference at the Gaylord National Resort and Convention Center sponsored by The Heritage Foundation, a conservative think tank.
- Walters also billed the state between $1,025 and $1,220 for a speaking appearance at the Moms for Liberty Joyful Warriors Summit in Philadelphia in June, according to travel forms that included estimated airfare costs. Moms for Liberty covered the cost of his hotel room.
- He claimed another $552 for airfare, mileage and per diem for an appearance as the keynote speaker at the Freedom Foundation’s Teachers for Freedom Summit in Denver in July. The event featured sessions such as “Teachers Unions: An International Problem” and “Is woke curriculum taking over your subject?”
- Walters traveled to Washington D.C. for two days in August. The estimated total cost of Walters’ travel including airfare and lodging was between $989 and $1,067, documents show. The trip was for “policy meetings,” according to a state travel form and airfare estimates. An itinerary shows Walters had two meetings with representatives from conservative think tanks but most of the trip was spent making media appearances, including talk shows affiliated with the far-right media outlet The Epoch Times, which has ties to the Falun Gong religious movement and a podcast hosted by the president of the Heritage Foundation.
Walters’ first stop during his August trip to Washington was for coffee with a representative from Fox News in charge of booking guests for the program America’s Newsroom to discuss “national media opportunities,” according to a travel itinerary. Jenna Thomas, Walters’ chief of staff at the State Department of Education, accompanied him on the trip, billing the state for an additional $1,059 in travel expenses.
State travel request forms require a manager’s signature, but as the head of the Oklahoma State Department of Education, Walters signed off on his own trip expenses. The Oklahoma Office of Management and Enterprise Services paid the travel claims. A spokesperson for the agency said Walters submitted all the required documentation for the trips.
Dan Isett, a spokesperson for Walters at the State Department of Education, did not answer The Frontier’s requests for more information about the purpose of the trips and why Walters was able to approve his own travel requests.
“Oklahomans are not surprised or fooled by another attack and fake controversy from the liberal media. Superintendent Walters will never stop leading Oklahoma and the nation to reform our schools, get back to basics, and improve student academic outcomes,” Isett said in an email. “There is a story to be told and travel throughout Oklahoma and around the country is a normal part of the duties of any statewide office holder. Superintendent Walters continues to meticulously protect Oklahoma taxpayers from the wasteful spending we’ve seen under previous administrations.”
Walters has rapidly become a rising star in conservative politics. Since taking office as State Superintendent in January 2023, he’s booked appearances on Fox News to talk about the “woke ideology” in public schools and testified before Congress in support of Republican lawmakers’ efforts to investigate educational programs funded by the Chinese government. He is also a frequent guest on right-wing podcasts and talk shows.
The Frontier obtained records documenting Walters’ travel expenses from Sen. Mary Boren, D-Norman, who requested the information from the State Department of Education last year. Boren said she is concerned Walters has put personal promotion above his duties to oversee public education in the state.
“It’s more fun to stir the pot and get pats on the head and lovey-doveys from the radical right than it is to actually ensure that we recruit and retain teachers,” Boren said.
Walters’ administration has touted a recruitment program it says has brought 117 out-of-state teachers into Oklahoma classrooms.
Gov. Kevin Stitt issued a moratorium on all non-essential, state-funded, out-of-state travel in 2019 that remains in effect. Stitt has banned most out-of-state trips for state officers and employees unless the travel is “critical to the performance of core agency functions,” to obtain professional accreditation not available in Oklahoma or for matters involving the federal government.
As a separately elected official, Walters did not seek permission from the Governor’s office for his travel, said Abegail Cave, a spokesperson for Stitt.
“Governor Stitt thinks all elected officials and government employees should be good stewards of taxpayer dollars,” Cave told The Frontier.
During Walters’ two-day trip to the Dallas area last year, he attended the red-carpet premiere of the film Nefarious and appeared on conservative commentator Glenn Beck’s podcast. Beck also made a cameo appearance in the movie.
Walters’ room at the Drury Inn & Suites in Frisco, Texas, was booked under the group name Nefarious Movie LLC, according to a travel reimbursement form. The form shows Walters claimed mileage for the drive from the Beck-affiliated American Journey Experience museum next door to the studio where Beck records his podcast to a movie theater in Plano on the same date that the Nefarious film premiere was held there. Ted Cruz, the U.S. Senator from Texas, also attended the premiere.
“Folks are getting to see on the big screen what we are up against, what evil looks like in today’s time, what Satan is doing in the world today, ” Walters said. “It is an absolutely incredible film.”
In interviews, Deace credited Walters with helping to end a film crew strike on the set of the film. Walters “went to war for us,” Deace said.
Walters wrote on a travel expense form that his trip to Texas was to meet with “educational stakeholders,” but he didn’t include any details about who he met with or what was discussed.
Isett did not provide the names of the stakeholders Walters met with when The Frontier asked for more detailed information.
“Yes, he was able to meet with many essential stakeholders and spread Oklahoma’s story of how we are fighting wokeism in the classroom,” Isett responded in an email. “All of Ryan Walters’ travel has been essential to attract new teachers, fight against radical wokeism and the over-sexualization and grooming of our kids. There is nothing more important than Oklahoma’s mission to educate and protect our kids.”