Consensus-building vital to fixing common education, says new Barresi chief of staff

What do you get when you put together a career teacher’s union lobbyist and an education reformer at the highest level of education governance?

Maybe not what you’d think.

Former Oklahoma Education Association chief lobbyist Joel Robison is now chief of staff to Oklahoma State Superintendent of Public Instruction Janet Barresi. 

She ran on a platform of education reform. She was the leading force in founding the Independence Charter Middle School, then later played a key role in forming what is now the Harding Charter Preparatory High School – two of the first public charters in Oklahoma City.

The OEA and other teachers’ groups have not supported enterprise and charter schools.
Robison is taking over the position previously held by Jennifer Carter, who became pregnant and left the education department on leave – permanently, according to education department official Damon Gardenhire.

Reaction has varied in the education establishment and legislative circles about what Robison’s hiring means for  Oklahoma’s struggling common education system.

What hasn’t been done is to ask Robison what his intentions are.

Robison said he is a moderate Democrat with wide-ranging political interests, from liberal to conservative and positions in between. He said he is for education reform. For months or more, his Facebook profile has reflected that his interests span the entirety of the political and education spectrum.

The Buffalo, Oklahoma native is the son of a school administrator. He earned an education degree from Weatherford’s Southwestern Oklahoma State University, then taught elementary physical education for six years in Oklahoma City public schools. 

During that time, he began involvement in teacher union work for the American Federation of Teachers where he became a colleague of Ed Allen, president of the AFT. He lobbied for the union, rising in the ranks. Later, Robison joined the OEA’s lobbying center, eventually becoming chief lobbyist.

Allen speaks well of Robison, noting he might be able to become a unifying force among various education factions.
Allen’s AFT local in the Oklahoma City Public Schools has begun calling for compromise among divergent education sectors and has demonstrated some willingness to compromise with district administrators.

Robison stresses that his priority will be to help support and execute his Republican Superintendent’s policies.

Some of Barresi’s decisions have drawn criticism from both sides of the aisle.

Her 2011-2012 budget drew vociferous fire from teachers. Chief among them: removing the $5,000 state stipend for National Board Certified teachers, and other cuts affecting teachers, while boosting early childhood education spending.

So what is Robison’s education focus?

“It’s going to take a willingness on everyone’s part, no matter what interest group,” he said. “Whether it’s teachers associations, principal and superintendent associations, chambers of commerce, PTAs, they need to stop looking at things through their organizational/political lenses, and start looking at what’s really the most important thing in education, and that’s the child.

“Too many times organizations, no matter what their political stripe, they’ve got their agenda and that’s what they’re focused on, instead of focusing on holistically, how it’s going to affect the child.”

Every legislative session, various factions line up on opposing sides to protect their interests – and too often, little is accomplished for children, he said.

He’s also concerned for students with extra challenges to their education.

“There has been recognition … amongst people of all political beliefs, that there is a certain segment of students that has really been under-served,” Robison said. “It’s important, … it’s essential, that we take the steps we need to take in order to ensure that doesn’t continue.’

“One thing I’ve heard that I totally agree with is a student’s success in school shouldn’t depend on what zip code they’re from.”

Children with challenges deserve the same advantages as those residing in the suburbs. Among those he includes children of divergent races, nationality and economic backgrounds, he said.

He added that he supports the Superintendent’s “Three Cs” program to help all students become “college, career and citizen ready” by 2020.

“I want to help Superintendent Barresi be successful,” Robison said. “That is the job of chief of staff. I will help her in whatever way I can, whether it’s at the capital, the agency, or with outside groups.’

“I want her agenda to move ahead and be successful. Because that’s how I will be judged ultimately.”

Note: Stacy Martin is a contributing writer for CapitolBeatOK and the editor of The City Sentinel Newspaper