WHEN Janet Barresi ran for state schools superintendent, she pulled no punches about what she would do if voters gave her the job: reform, reform and more reform. Her intentions could not have been clearer.
Under the category of promises kept, she gets an A — maybe even an A-plus. That's no small thing in politics, and Barresi has bruises to show for it, earned from bumping up against the education establishment. Her grit is commendable.
She's two years out from election should she choose to seek a second term. She may want to draw from the experiences of a colleague in Indiana.
Indiana and Oklahoma have been on somewhat parallel tracks when it comes to education reform. Barresi has referred to Tony Bennett, who was elected that state's superintendent in 2008, more than a few times when discussing what other states are doing in meaningful education reform. Bennett and Barresi have been active in Chiefs for Change, a group of reform-minded state school leaders.
Bennett received a surprise boot out of office last week even after doing exactly what he said he would. Scott Elliott, an education reporter at the Indianapolis Star analyzed it this way: “In politics, it pays to remember that you need to make sure regular folks are behind you when you push for big changes. Bennett's biggest miscalculation may have been waiting too long to try to build a wide coalition of teachers — not just collect a few like minded ones — to buy into his approach or, at a minimum, to at least trust him enough to give his ideas a chance. Teacher mistrust was the biggest arrow that felled him on Tuesday. “
Elliott included anecdotes of people who said they were friends or relatives of teachers who planned to vote not so much for the other candidate (a teacher), but against Bennett. “It appears there were enough of these kinds of conversations across the state to ultimately play a role in dooming Bennett's re-election despite huge advantages he had in terms of money and name recognition,” the story said. “Teachers long have complained about the way Bennett talked about them, that they felt he was blaming teachers for all the state's education woes.”
If concerns over the mix of style and substance sound familiar, they should.
In Oklahoma, superintendents and many teachers have been riled up almost since Barresi took office even though, to her credit, she's doing exactly what she said she would do. At times her words and actions have lacked grace and diplomacy, which has served as a distraction and eroded relationships with many of the state's educators.
On the other hand Barresi has absorbed more than her share of slings and arrows, too, from those educators who seem to be averse to change of almost any kind. As we've said before, the continued sniping and finger pointing from both sides has grown old.
As she continues implementing her strategy for the Department of Education, building a consensus — or at least making a valliant effort to do so — could help Barresi win another election in 2014. More important, it might help make the next two years a time when politics takes a distant back seat to student achievement.