Republican Janet Barresi, Independent Richard Cooper and Sen. Susan Paddack, D-Ada, want to lead reform measures and policy changes for the state’s public school system.
The trio of candidates for state superintendent of public instruction acknowledges the many challenges they would face as Oklahoma ranks 49th in the country in per-pupil spending.
But they are campaigning on several different platforms that they hope will improve education that is widely acknowledged as underfunded.
·Barresi, a former speech pathologist and dentist, founded Independence Charter Middle School and then became the board president of Harding Charter Preparatory High School.
“I have that unique position in that I’m a small-business woman and an educator,” she said. “I have experience in meeting payrolls, borrowing money, paying it back, paying taxes and all of that. And I understand customer service.”
· Cooper began teaching middle school in 1981 and currently is a master teacher at East Central University’s Teaching American History Grant program. Cooper said he decided to run because he was discouraged by the same type of leadership he saw within the education department during the past 20 years.
“I was at the point of feeling we were getting away from education in the State Department of Education itself,” he said. “Teaching and learning in the classroom is where we should be focused. I think the department should remember it serves the school districts and not the other way around.”
· Paddack, a state Senator since 2005, is the only candidate who has been elected to public office. She also taught science in middle and junior high school and worked for nine years as the director of local education foundation research at the Oklahoma Foundation for Excellence.
“I’ve had experience in education from being in the classroom, to higher education to working in the nonprofit sector to policy making,” she said. “There really is no other candidate in this race with that depth and breadth of experience.”
Effects of possible passage of State Question 744
· Barresi opposes State Question 744, which would require the state to spend annually no less than the average amount spent on each student in surrounding states. She said the budget cuts this would cause other state agencies outweighs any potential benefits for the schools.
“Since no funding stream has been identified for it, they are going to go find money where they can, which means deep, deep cuts in critical core state agencies,” she said. “I do not think there will be one person in this state that won’t be adversely affected, either directly or indirectly, by the devastating effects of 744.”
· Cooper acknowledges the proposal might not be the best solution because of its effects on other parts of the state budget. However, he said he supports the measure because he thinks the state must take some action to better fund education.
“As an educator I know the need for increased funds for students in the classroom,” he said. “It is time, regardless of the economic situation, for the state of Oklahoma to put our money where our mouth is and support public education. We either say public education is our No. 1 priority or it is not.”
· Paddack, who has stayed neutral on the campaign trail on the issue of the state question, said whether the ballot measure is approved or not, officials need to show taxpayers they are being good stewards of their money. If the ballot measure is defeated, she said she would advocate for increased funding for public education.
“I think we are going to have to make a serious case of why public education is important,” she said. “Many of our schools have no carryover at this point and they are operating on a very thin line.”
School system reform and changes
· Barresi said a complete overhaul of the state’s education system is needed. She said she would push changes ranging from focusing on smaller government to revising how students are taught.
“We need to teach children how to think, not what to think,” she said. “We can’t stuff facts into kids anymore. … In order to be effective in bringing those curriculums to students, we need to focus on professional development for teachers to make it meaningful and relevant.”
· Cooper said he would like to see less emphasis on school standards or test scores. He said schools should return to the basics of teaching in the classroom.
“We need to be getting away from the idea that accountability and testing is going to bring up test scores and make better students,” he said. “What makes better students is better trained teachers, better materials and more time on a concentration of skills from math and sciences to English and literature and history and everything.”
· Paddack said one of her first initiatives would be to commission an in-depth study of what can be done to improve the schools. She said would model this on the state’s ongoing Comprehensive Water Plan by conducting many regional meetings and seeking broad input through a “ground-up” model.
“You can’t know where you want to go until you create that vision and plan for achieving that,” she said. “I would convene all the various groups around the table and talk about what we want to do for the kids of Oklahoma. I think we are going to need to involve people like never before, because educators can’t do it alone.”
Relationship between local, state, federal departments
· Barresi said the most important lesson she learned from the charter school model is how they benefit from local control. She said she wants to bring this to public schools by removing unfunded and underfunded state mandates.
“We need to allow their boards and superintendents to operate with more flexibility, particularly on how they spend their money,” she said. “I’m for lifting those mandates, but developing very strong accountability and transparency measures to it.”
· Cooper said he does not see the need for much state or federal involvement in local school districts as long as they are meeting their basic requirements. He said he also opposes any outside programs that add too many mandates to the school system.
“I think a local school board and a local community and its educators, superintendent, administrators and teachers know the best about what is good for their community,” he said. “I’m opposed to Race to the Top and any sort of intervention by a private company or things like that. Basically I’m saying that I’m not willing to sell Oklahoma’s school to anyone.”
· Paddack said she supports models where schools can chose to opt-in to programs that might require additional mandates but provide more funding opportunities. She said there has to be a give-and-take between a local school system’s independence and its ability to meet certain requirements.
“There has to be a balance because mandates do provide accountability and standards so you don’t have a patch quilt of rules and regulations,” she said. “I think that one of our biggest mandates is No Child Left Behind, which is a federal mandate, and that came to us without really many dollars, and that has been a problem.”
Trevor Brown covers the Oklahoma statehouse for CNHI and The Transcript. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.