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One Year Later: How Far We’ve Come

It’s hard to believe it’s already been a year, but it has. On June 24, 2014, Oklahoma voters not only elevated Joy Hofmeister over the incumbent state superintendent; they did so with a more decisive margin than any of us had imagined. Many of us went into the day worried that Hofmeister would fall just short of the 50% tally necessary to avoid an expensive run-off election. As the evening unfolded, Hofmeister not only won the primary, she comfortably surpassed 50. Furthermore, if she had faced a run-off election, it wouldn’t have been against the incumbent. Janet Barresi had finished in third.

Among the Democrats in the race, voters had narrowed the choices to two. John Cox would eventually defeat Freda Deskin in a late summer run-off. Then something amazing happened. Hofmeister and Cox went around Oklahoma debating one another. In public. Pretty much everywhere. It was one of the most civil things I had seen in politics in a long time. When I finally saw them at Westmoore High School in October, the general election was but a few weeks away. By then, they probably didn’t have many surprises left for one another. Most of the discussions were on point. A few barbs by each were political in nature, but very few. It was largely a substantive discussion.

SIDE NOTE: I had this picture in the back of my head of the two of them driving all over the state in an old VW van continuing their debates as they moved from stop to stop. Yes, I know that’s not how it all happened, but don’t ruin this for me.

Meanwhile, Barresi had more than six months remaining in her term. During that time, she continued the work of the previous 42 months. The only difference was that more of us were speaking out against her. She defended herself rather crassly at the Vision 2020 conference. She created a crony position for an in-house investigator who paraded around Oklahoma trying to intimidate leaders in various district. Board members called her out. She swore at one of them. Even on her last day in office, she fired people pretty much just because she could.

At noon on January 12, Hofmeister took office. She then had an open house at the SDE to greet people and set a new tone for her upcoming administration. The big WELCOME #OKLAED banner in front of the building did that. As I chatted with several old friends, we all expressed optimism.

For me, that feeling hasn’t faded.

Superintendent Hofmeister has had some early victories in her administration. She eliminated the field test for fifth and eighth grade writing and announced that the prompt would ask students to write in the narrative mode. A few months later, when the tests came back with the exact same problems as last year, she wasted no time in announcing that the scores wouldn’t count in the A-F Report Card calculations. Last year, if you’ll recall, it took an entire tortured summer for Barresi to finally make that decision.

To me, the most impressive thing she’s done, is gather her assessment team and get Measured Progress to change the practice of a student’s score range appearing on the screen after finishing each state test. She did it quickly. Most Oklahomans were appreciative.

She worked with legislators to try to curb testing. If it hadn’t been for a few in leadership positions, they would have been able to eliminate the writing tests.

This needs to happen, by the way. Nobody values writing instruction more than I do. Lousy prompts on lousy tests lead to dubious writing that is scored by temporary labor who are poorly trained and poorly compensated.

Hofmeister even came to the rally at the Capitol in March and has continued fighting to curb the teacher shortage. At times, it has seemed as if her ideas are left hanging in mid-air because we still have the same governor, representatives, and senators we had before. She hasn’t won every political fight for us, but it was only the first year.

She still has some critics on the fringe of each party. Many of them hold dearly to petty, perceived slights and are susceptible to every conspiracy theory they can imagine. It’s to be expected.

The Oklahoman also hasn’t warmed up to Hofmeister, but then again, they still have Barresi’s first campaign manager’s husband writing editorials. Similarly, the Oklahoma Council of Public Affairs continues pushing back against her and all things public education. Expecting something different would be like asking the sun not to shine.

In spite of this, I do still feel optimistic. More importantly, I feel respected. I feel that my profession and the children we are passionate to serve have a voice – and that her voice will only become more influential during the next several years.

Going back a year – actually, a year and two days – I hosted the Sunday night #oklaed chat and asked several questions about the primary election. I want to share a few responses to the second question, which was, “What should a new state superintendent do on day one in office.”

Yes, there were a few snarky, Paul Lynde “center-square” type answers in there, but most were along the lines of inviting parents and educators to the SDE (done) and helping remaining SDE staff understand their role as a true service agency (visible progress on that front).

A year has made a huge difference. I’m still excited. I owe that feeling to Joy Hofmeister and the people of this state who decided a year ago that they had seen enough.

June Starts Now

Following the Legislature’s override of Governor Fallin’s veto of HB 2625 (and Superintendent Barresi’s comically awful response to it), I took a little break. I’ve even had a few questions about this. Yes, there have been a few tweets or retweets, but I really have been focusing on other things. I need to recharge from time to time.

That time is over. We have 24 days until the election primaries in Oklahoma, and whether you’re a Republican or a Democrat, much is at stake. There is a real possibility that the incumbent in the superintendent race loses her primary. There is also a possibility that she doesn’t. That is why we have to know enough about all the candidates to make an informed decision.

I decided a while ago that I would not make an explicit endorsement on my blog, and I’m sticking to that. Just the same, I’m with the thousands of Oklahomans who will not vote to re-elect Barresi under any circumstance (or her maiden name). Now that the legislature is not in session and school is out across Oklahoma (except in a few places), I’m going to spend the next three weeks or so reminding readers about the ways she has treated schools, educators, and students with complete and utter disrespect.

That probably means I should watch her campaign ad that I’ve heard so much about on social media.

Ok, I just did. Yowza!

In the opening, the impressive voice-over man asks, Who can we trust to defend our values? and then proceeds to use the word conservative three times in the 30 second spot (cue the lesson on loaded language now).

Which conservative values are those? Violating student privacy laws? Insulting teachers? Writing off entire regions of the state? Re-hiring CTB last year after their colossal SNAFU? Her own agency’s mishandling of the school report cards?

He says Barresi cut millions from her own budget. Actually, the legislature did most of that. Whatever she has cut, I would bet we could find quite a few school districts that have cut more – none of which was by choice.

He says she took on the liberal unions and education bureaucrats. If by took on, you mean, hired the OEA’s top lobbyist and made him her Chief of Staff, then I’m with you. In actuality, her staff would never have been able to make any headway with implementing the Common Core and teacher evaluation reforms she cherishes without the OEA and CCOSA. The SDE partnered with their staff and even used their facilities for key meetings with these initiatives. At the same time, when she has needed the appearance of stakeholder input, she has brought representatives groups of teachers and administrators together, only to disregard their advice.

Janet Barresi does not represent or protect Oklahoma values. That she is a reformer is probably the truest statement in the ad. As I’ve pointed out many times before, she’s following the playbook of Jeb Bush and his Foundation, with a little help from the Koch brothers and ALEC. She’s trying to tell us what our values are, but she shows no interest in hearing from Oklahoma parents or teachers.

We have 24 days. Know the options.

Vote Tomorrow

November 5, 2012 1 comment

I started this blog to dispute myths about public education, not to endorse candidates for public office. During the last six months, I have followed (and been followed by) several incumbents and their challengers on Twitter. There have been engaging and sometimes contentious exchanges. While I’m not going to say specifically that readers of this blog need to support one person over another, I will give a few guiding principles that inform my decision-making.

Finance – If a candidate still thinks that education has too much money, I’d have to question that person’s commitment to helping children. Public schools in Oklahoma have been bled dry over the last few years. They’ve endured cuts to vital programs while enrolling more students. In most cases, teachers’ raises during this time have not kept pace with inflation. School districts have paid close attention to their annual carryover to make sure they can pay salaries and buy textbooks when the next year begins … and they’ve been attacked for it. Support the candidate who understands that quality public education takes money.

Accountability – If a candidate has a double-standard about public and private school accountability, I’d avoid that person too. Public schools have to maintain open records related to revenues and expenditures. Private schools don’t. Public schools have to endure test upon test upon test. Private schools don’t. Public schools have to follow state and federal guidelines. Private schools don’t. Some candidates for public office insist that private schools outperform public schools. There’s simply no evidence to support this. Given the push coming for the Parent Trigger and expanded Voucher options, the people who maintain these inconsistencies should not be trusted with the oversight of public education.

Consolidation – If a candidate thinks that there should be an arbitrary limit on how small a district can be before wanting it closed, that person has paid no attention to research on school size. The recent legislative study showing potential cost savings failed to mention that studies in other states found no savings from consolidation unless attendance centers were closed. In rural Oklahoma, this is often simply not possible. While some districts struggle to operate financially or offer a comprehensive curriculum and should consider consolidation accordingly, they should not be subjected to mandates that will weaken communities with no tangible benefit.

One more thing – I’m against four of the state questions (758, 759, 765, and 766). The other two (762 and 764) make sense to me. If you want a good synopsis of these questions, go to the Oklahoma Policy Institute website. You should also subscribe and have their blog sent to your inbox daily.

Education is but one issue. There are many others. Make informed decisions. Then wake up Wednesday and be proud of your city, your school, your state, and your country.

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