Seven candidates are vying to become Oklahoma's state schools superintendent

Candidates for Oklahoma state schools superintendent met Friday in Norman for a debate — all except incumbent Republican Janet Barresi, who decided to skip the event so she could discuss implementing new academic standards.
by Tim Willert Published: June 8, 2014

Joy Hofmeister had the podium all to herself Friday in Norman. The Republican candidate for state schools superintendent wasted little time taking aim at incumbent Janet Barresi, who did not participate in a debate that included all four Democratic candidates.

“We have a lot of work to do because of, really, failed leadership,” Hofmeister said. “And that’s why I’m compelled to run. We need new leadership because of that failure to listen and to lead.”

Barresi faces Hofmeister and Brian Kelly in the June 24 Republican primary. She defended her decision to skip the debate, saying she was in meetings to discuss implementing new academic standards following Thursday’s repeal of Common Core by Gov. Mary Fallin.

“Our desire is do nothing but make these standards even better than the Common Core,” she said. “These are going to be better and more rigorous.”

Barresi also defended herself against attacks from Hofmeister and others who portray her as inflexible, uncommunicative and divisive.

“It’s a perception that has been created by education bureaucrats and union leaders to give the public a perception that I don’t listen to educators or parents or the public.”

Barresi said she values input from all groups, noting that more than 500 educators were involved in writing state science standards and 200 teachers were involved in writing a teacher evaluation system.

Four others — John Cox, Freda Deskin, Jack Herron and Ivan Holmes — are vying in the Democratic primary.

Each of Barresi’s opponents share common themes, including their support of new state academic standards for English and math and the need to use educators to develop those standards.

They agree that standardized testing is hurting instruction by placing too much emphasis on how a student performs. Most said they intend to increase per-pupil funding. Most favor school choice for parents, including the right to homeschool students or send them to charter schools.

Here’s a closer look at the candidates for state schools superintendent:

Janet Barresi

Since beginning her term in 2011, Barresi, 62, has ushered in a number of educational reforms approved by the Legislature, including the A-F school grading system, a teacher evaluation program and a third-grade reading retention law.

Many of the reforms have been controversial among educators, administrators and parents, but Barresi said she is not giving in.

“What sets me apart from my opponents is I am focused on the children of the state and making sure they have the best education possible,” she said. “My opponents are focused on making adults feel good and look good to the public, and that’s been the problem for the last several decades.”

Barresi said she will continue to work with Gov. Mary Fallin to implement the reforms and continue to focus on accountability and transparency, if re-elected. Reading and literacy will be a continued focus, she said, adding that she plans to expand parent education choices that include a statewide charter authority.

“I’m running because the only way out of poverty is through education,” she said. “I’m running so that every child in the state can pursue their dream, and with the education system we’ve had in the past that has not been possible.”

John Cox

Cox, 50, just completed his 20th year as superintendent of Peggs Public Schools. He said being a current superintendent gives him a leg up on the other candidates.

“I live it every day,” he said. “What we say is that you really have to live it to lead it, and so I think that’s very valuable so that I can have a true understanding of what’s going on in education today.”

Cox said recent education reforms are “eroding local control” of public schools. Standardized testing, he added, is not improving instruction.

“One thing that we’ve gotten away from is really looking at the individual student,” he said. “We’ve really focused on what a test score is and more on measurement.”

Cox is not a fan of the third-grade reading test and said that the A-F report card has created dissension among state educators.

“In some cases, teachers could be doing an outstanding job, but their school gets a D,” he said. “I think they take that to heart, that they really believe they earned that D, and so I think it s so important that we have measurements that measure what they’re supposed to.”

Freda Deskin

Deskin, 65, of Edmond, is a former teacher and the founder of ASTEC Charter School in Oklahoma City.

Deskin saud she’s concerned about the future of education in Oklahoma.

“I have lots of concerns because there are so many issues in education today,” she said. “I have a real concern that local control is being removed and we are pushing from the top down, telling teachers what to teach, how to teach it, when to teach it, and imposing excessive testing on children.”

The dropout rate worries Deskin, as does losing teachers to better-paying jobs in surrounding states. They have difficult jobs and deserve more respect, she said.

“We expect the schools to be everything to all students ... in some cases we also expect them to be the parent,” she said. “We also expect them to deal with the 200 education bills that affect them. It’s too much, even for those who love teaching.”

by Tim Willert
Education Reporter
Tim Willert is a native Californian with Oklahoma ties who covers education. Prior to moving to Oklahoma in June 2011, he was as an editor for in Century City, Calif., and reported on courts for the Los Angeles Daily Journal and...
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