Last week's donnybrook at Superintendent
Janet Barresi's first State Board of
Education meeting was riveting political
theater. And it was nothing more than a
preview of coming attractions.
Despite all the high-minded rhetoric
about improving education, reducing the
number of dropouts and better preparing our students
to compete in the global economy, the state's public
schools actually have become pawns in a battle for
As a result, there will be more skirmishes at state
board meetings. There will be more fl are-ups in the
legislature. And there eventually will be more clashes at
school board meetings, as well as within school districts
There are two powerful forces driving education
"reform" in Oklahoma -- neither of which is devoted
to actually improving academic outcomes. The fi rst
is the state's deep-pocketed, anti-union business
The second is a zealous band of religious
fundamentalists and theocrats that prefers home
schools and church schools to the melting pot of
You would think the state's corporate leadership
would be the most serious about improving
Oklahoma's education. Don't they need a welleducated
workforce to compete in the 21st century
It's clear, though, that not enough of the business
elite ever really cared about upgrading the state's K-12
schools. If they did, Oklahoma wouldn't be 47th in what
we spend per pupil. After all, Oklahoma's business
leaders -- and biggest campaign contributors -- usually
get what they want.
The real "reform" that many top business leaders
want doesn't involve the classroom. Rather, it's aimed
at the teachers' unions -- particularly the state's largest,
the Oklahoma Education Association. What they really
want is to destroy the OEA.
As a Republican lawmaker put it recently, "We
don't hate teachers. We hate their union."
I've never understood that logic. If the OEA is so
powerful, why are Oklahoma educators 49th nationally
in pay? Why does the state owe billions of dollars to the
teacher retirement system? Why isn't the state fulfi lling
its pledge to reward National Board Certifi ed teachers
and speech pathologists their promised $5,000 bonus?
The second group of major players -- including
religious fundamentalists and theocrats -- tenaciously
promotes vouchers that would allow students to divert
scarce tax dollars from public schools to religious
schools, even home schools.
One of the key actors is the Oklahoma Council
of Public Affairs (OCPA), a conservative, Oklahoma
City-based think tank fi nanced by some of the state's
deepest pockets. They're constantly churning out
"research" that supports their agenda, which amounts
to this: anything but public education.
For the most part, groups insist they're not antipublic
schools, asserting instead that competition will
strengthen public education by forcing it to compete.
Their altruism would be more credible if they'd been
in the trenches in past efforts to bolster the existing
system. Some, though, fought Gov. Henry Bellmon's
marvelous HB 1017 reforms tooth-and-nail and
worked since to systemically dismantle them.
The State Board's pushback against some of
Barresi's staff choices -- one of the fi rst skirmishes
in what promises to be a session-long battle over
education reform -- ignited a GOP fi restorm.
The meeting was still in full uproar when the
OCPA issued a press release, urging state lawmakers
to clip the board's authority. Two Republican
legislators -- Corey Holland of Marlow and Charles
Ortega of Altus -- suddenly showed up to watch the
proceedings. An hour after the meeting adjourned,
Gov. Mary Fallin and other GOP leaders joined Barresi
at a Capitol news conference to denounce the board.
Inside baseball? Perhaps. But what's happening
here is important -- and Oklahomans who care about
public education should take note.
Yes, the State Board of Education is comprised
of members appointed by the previous governor,
Democrat Brad Henry. (Of course, no one would
mistake him for a partisan.) But the constitutionally
established board has a legally defi ned management
role to play -- duties set up through laws enacted over
decades by the Legislature.
It is true that lawmakers could neuter the board
but they do so at their own peril. It's almost always
foolhardy to make radical changes in the midst of a
hissy fi t. Even so, some GOP legislators are discussing
it, no doubt spurred on by the OCPA and others.
Barresi and her Republican allies argue that hiring
her own management team is routine for a new boss.
True enough. But there are legal issues to consider:
Some of her team were already on the job -- and being
paid with private funds -- while they operated out
of taxpayer-fi nanced offi ces and directed taxpayerfi
This isn't a partisan issue. It's a good government
issue. It's a matter of transparency. Taxpayers deserve
to know who's paying these salaries -- and what their
agendas are. Barresi reported that Devon Energy and
Bank of Oklahoma are among the contributors to
a tax-exempt group called 3R Initiative Inc., which
is paying the salaries through the Oklahoma City
Communities Foundation. Who else in involved?
Barresi, Fallin and other Republican leaders seem
to be taking the position that it shouldn't matter --
it's not costing the taxpayers anything, for now, and
Barresi ought to be allowed to hire whomever she
wants because she won statewide election last fall.
The new superintendent made clear she believes
she has a mandate from the voters to overhaul
Oklahoma's educational system. The implication is
that anyone who questions her decisions is part of
an old guard seeking to protect their power within a
It makes for a good sound bite, but it fails to
appreciate the complexities. For example, Barresi's
choice for chief of staff, Jennifer Carter, was her
campaign manager. You'd expect a newly elected
statewide offi cial to surround herself with those she
knows best. But here's where it gets murky: Carter
doesn't possess the academic and career qualifi cations
required to be second in command at the state
education department, according to administrative
rules approved by the board. This is red meat for critics
-- especially when you throw in a $96,000 annual
salary, which sounds like an awful lot of money to most
Almost every statewide elected offi cial who wins
by a comfortable margin asserts a mandate. Asserting
it, as part of the political give-and-take, is one thing.
Believing it is another. In fact, it's more plausible that
Barresi was swept into offi ce in a Republican tidal wave
spawned by anti-Obama sentiment in Oklahoma --
not because the electorate was seconding her every
Republicans face a major challenge as they exercise
dominion over state government: how to guard against
overreach. The political graveyard is littered with those
who asserted a mandate where none existed.
--Arnold Hamilton is editor
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