By Patrick B. McGuigan
State Sen. Susan Paddack of Ada, a Democatic leader on education policy and other issues, is heavily favored to be her party’s nominee for superintendent of public instruction after the July 27 primary. However, retired “small schools” Superintendent Jerry Combrink is making his case for the party nod.
After she filed in June for the Superintendent’s job, Sen. Paddack held a brief interview with CapitolBeatOK about the upcoming race. She said then: “I believe I’ve got the right skill sets. I have legislative and business experience, and I have been involved in community causes throughout my career. I have experiences in common education and higher education that prepare me to do this job. I am running to fight as hard as I can for good education.”
Anticipating a widely-anticipated battle against Republican Janet Barresi this fall, Sen. Paddack told CapitolBeatOK, “I’m going all out to win, like I do on everything I do.”
At last month’s forum on education held at Oklahoma City University’s Meinders School of Business, Paddack told forum attendees the choices legislators had to make in the challenging 2010 legislative session were ‘very tough.’ Concerning the OEA sponsored initiative, State Question 744, she said, “I trust the voters to go to the polls and make that choice.”
During discussion of progress in schools at the forum, she reflected, “We know we’re not where we need to be.” Concerning Oklahoma’s comparative lag in the number of college graduates, Paddack said she believes the state needs a strategic plan, and better ability to assess students “all along the way.”
She specified that by eighth grade educators must be able to identify strengths and weaknesses of students to respond to needs and get college-bound students “ready on the ACT.” Sen. Paddack said she was “not in favor of forced consolidation,” but did favor “lowering costs” where possible in the system. She said charter schools “are a great tool in the toolbox for education improvement.”
Summarizing the case for her election, Paddack said that in her years of community service, work as an educator and in elected office, “the common thread is helping kids.” Pressing for bold reforms, she said, will require getting “all the stakeholders around the table. If we get education right, everything else will fall into place.”
In an interview on Sunday, July 11, she explained further her views on S.Q. 744: “You heard my answer at the OCU forum, and I have said that all across the state. I do trust the people to decide whether they are for or against that proposal. I think we all agree that we need to fund education at a higher level.
“This particular budget year was a real challenge to us as we are only at 90 percent of the regional level, and yet we had to cut even beyond that. Where do we come up with the money to fund education better? The voters will decide if that question is the right way. My job will be to use the money we have wisely no matter how that turns out. I will trust the voters to decide.”
Reflecting on continued discussion focused on Oklahoma’s use of standardized testing to guide education policy development and instruction, Sen. Paddack said, “Our state has signed on to be part of the common core standards. That will mean that the standards for math in Oklahoma will be the same a in the other 48 states that have joined that effort. I would like to see some independent and professional assessment of just where we are already.”
She continued, “We are getting close to having the first class to graduate under the end-of-instruction tests established years ago. There is discussion of using the ACT as an assessment but the issue is unresolved. This is a good time to look at the whole picture in light of the decision to join the common core standards.
“I want to advance a growth model, a growth continuum, so that we can evaluate how each child is doing. Independent research is needed to focus on the issue of a proper number of assessments. Do we have too many? There is still pressure to align with No Child Left Behind, but of course that is being reassessed even now.
“In terms of college testing, we are an ACT state, but that is a predictor of college success. Our end-of-instruction tests are a measure of content knowledge. I look at that 8th grade “explore and plan” tests as important. That’s the time we need to help guide college or career decisions, and that’s the test period that we need to guide us on how to beef up instruction or guide instruction for students based on where they are headed.”
CapitolBeatOK asked, other than funding levels, what would be the greatest challenge she would face as superintendent.
Paddack replied, “Well, it is in light of the funding issue that we face a special challenge to assure that every student has the chance to be successful. We are not there yet. We cannot afford the loss of even one human being, one student. We need a well-educated workforce, and the potential for every student to get where they need to get for success.”
Sen. Paddack said in response to our question that the main source of success in Oklahoma schools is: “The passion of our educators and the dedication to doing a good job with our students. We have some great areas of success even with all our problems. We have award-winning schools, many tremendous students, incredible parents and great collaboration in many of our schools. We are doing some things really well, and we need to those things for more.” She also praised the state’s early childhood education programs as a mark of success.
On the flip side, asked to name the primary source of failures in the system, she commented, “We have some big challenges in terms of poverty. Sixty percent of our students are on free and reduced lunch programs. In our two biggest cities, Oklahoma City and Tulsa, that number gets into the 80s. We have children who come from homes with no books to read and/or who are not read to at night.
“In sum, we have a serious socio-economic challenge to face as a state. There are students who come into the schools with far less knowledge than they need to succeed, and then the schools are under pressure to make up the difference. This area of failure or challenge can be addressed with more partnerships. I admire the partnerships in some of key charter schools, including the one Integris made [at Oklahoma City’s Western Village].
“Bringing in retired educators and other are a way to make up for the disadvantages some of our students face when they get to school.”
Sen. Paddack earned a B.S. in education in Colorado, and a master’s degree from East Centeral Univrsity in Ada. In the Legislature, Paddack has been a party Whip, Co-Chair of the Judiciary Committee, and a member of the Appropriations Committee, Appropriations Subcommittee on Education, the Education Committee, and the Tourism and Wildlife Committee.
Prior to her election, Paddack worked for nine years at the Oklahoma Foundation for Excellence, as Director of Local Education Foundation Outreach. While she worked there, local school foundations grew by 31 percent. Earlier in her career, Paddack was a science teacher at middle and junior high schools in Texas, Colorado, and Oklahoma, and an adjunct faculty member for East Central’s Education Department.
Jerry Combrink, who lives in Durant, notes he is the only candidate in his party with experience as a superintendent, having gained that during tenures in the Blue and Boswell systems. At the OCU forum, he argued in favor of State Question 744.
In a questionnaire for state journalists, Combrink said, “We must do more with less. The State Department of Education must serve as a resource and a service agency for the schools to help them meet accreditation standards and still provide a quality education to all of our students. The stated goal of the state department must be changed from the present ‘prepare all students to go to college’ to ‘prepare all students for their choice of college or career.’”
He contends, “By allowing students who are not college bound to take vocational classes at their home school in the skilled trade areas, such as licensed electrician, plumber, heat and air, hair dressing, landscaping, instead of forcing them to take the advanced math and science classes, this will allow them to pursue courses they see a real need in, and free up the academic classes for only the true college bound, thus reducing the need of remediation. It will serve both groups of students. The college bound will be ready, and the others will enter high paying jobs. I believe this to be the function of our public schools.”
Like many of this year’s candidates in both parties, Combrink says standardized tests have been used too much in Oklahoma schooling.
He said, “Some testing is certainly justified, but in my opinion, we have far too many tests spread throughout the grades and classes. The serious students get great anxiety over the tests, and the students less motivated treat the tests as a game to be played.”