U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan put Oklahoma in an embarrassing spotlight last week. During a briefing at the White House, Duncan noted that in Oklahoma, “40 percent of high school graduates have to take remedial classes when they go to college. Why? Because they weren’t ready...”
Duncan added, “About 25 percent of Oklahoma’s eighth-graders in math are proficient — 25 percent. And other states locally are out-educating Oklahoma.”
Janet Barresi has made it her mission as state schools superintendent to put a dent in ugly statistics such as the ones cited above. Barresi has made her share of missteps — and expended plenty of political capital — during her first term, but true education reform is at the heart of her work. She deserves a second term to continue the effort.
Barresi drew two challengers in the Republican primary on June 24, but this is essentially a two-person race. Tulsan Joy Hofmeister, a former member of the state Board of Education, is the chief challenger.
Hofmeister says that as superintendent she would form a leadership team “that will listen.” Referring to teachers, she said Barresi has created a climate “that is driving vibrant professionals out.” But the problem of losing teachers to other states, particularly Texas, long predates Barresi’s arrival in the superintendent’s office.
The challenger has gained the backing of about four dozen Republican lawmakers. This is evidence, Hofmeister says, that she’ll be better able to get things accomplished. Yet many of those same lawmakers endorsed the reforms that Barresi has championed — until the political kitchen got too hot.
Barresi’s office has made mistakes. The rollout of her A-F grading system for the state’s schools, which puzzled superintendents across Oklahoma, should have been handled better. Releasing the names of students who were appealing the results of state-mandated graduation tests was a gaffe. Problems with the companies that administer end-of-year tests have been troublesome.
But Barresi also has strongly resisted attempts to roll back graduation standards. During her 3½ years in office, the percentage of students passing four of seven end-of-year tests in subjects such as geometry and English has steadily increased. She has been a staunch supporter of school choice, including charter schools, online learning and homeschooling.
Barresi fought this year to keep in place a state law, enacted in 2011, that required third-graders to be able to read above a first-grade level or be held back. Lawmakers scuttled the law in the 2014 legislative session, then overrode Gov. Mary Fallin’s veto of the bill.
Barresi’s management style has left her open to criticism, but this shouldn’t be a personality contest. Playing nice and getting along well with others aren’t the only measures on the report card for state school superintendents. Barresi’s overarching goals are ones Oklahomans should support, regardless of party affiliation. She wants to improve education for all students. She wants to increase rigor so those students are well prepared to succeed in high school and college or in their careers.
Her pursuit of significant reform has naturally drawn protest, particularly from the education establishment. Yet Oklahoma doesn’t need more of the status quo, more of the same policies and practices that helped give the nation’s secretary of education plenty of fodder to ridicule this state.
On June 24, Republican voters who feel likewise should choose Janet Barresi to be the party’s nominee in November.