Hopefuls lining up to challenge OK Schools Superintendent Janet Barresi

OKLAHOMA CITY — A swath of credible candidates have emerged to challenge Superintendent of Public Instruction Janet Barresi’s hold on Oklahoma’s top K-12 public education job. The general election is one year away, and it is thus far the most active of the statewide races in the 2014 cycle.

With spring filing for state elective offices only a few months away and little activity outside of the superintendent’s race, most state jobs seem likely to remain in Republican hands.

Democrats seeking the schools’ post include Jack Herron of Norman, Freda Deskin of Oklahoma City, Donna Anderson of Bennington, John Cox of Peggs and Ivan Holmes of Oklahoma City.

One Republican has announced again Barresi, as well: Former state School Board member Joy Hofmeister of Tulsa. 

The most recent campaign finance information shows that Hofmeister outraised Superintendent Barresi for the campaign fundraising reporting period that ended Sept. 30. 

Barresi had brought in $48,500 during the last quarter, spending $41,455 and leaving cash on hand that totaled $149,130. Hofmeister raised $83,126 in those three months quarter, spending $27,222 and keeping cash on hand totaling $200,087.

Dr. Barresi’s place in state history is assured, regardless of what transpires over the next 12 months.

A dentist by training, she founded the Independence Charter Schools in the late 1990s. Both the Middle School and the High school (now known as Harding Charter High) she started have been among the best performing public schools in Oklahoma.

As superintendent, Barresi has supported school choice, including the Lindsey Nicole Henry Scholarship program that benefits special needs children. 

Since taking office in January 2011, she has also advocated major increases in state spending on public schools, supported the “Common Core” standards that some conservative activists oppose, and pressed for timely implementation of the A-F system for grading every public school (and district) in the Sooner State. 

An updated assessment of all state public schools may be released this week.  

Gov. Mary Fallin has defended her friend and ally, Dr. Barresi, including the A-F system.

In a recent essay sent to Oklahoma Watchdog and other news organizations, Fallin said, “The full-fledged effort by some to sabotage the goals of the A-F system has created the kind of distasteful and unproductive atmosphere of obstruction and gridlock we are used to seeing in Washington, D.C. It has turned a conversation about improving our schools into a partisan spectacle that is not becoming of Oklahoma. Worst of all, it has taken the focus off our children and what we can do to help them. Let’s put a stop to that.”

Fallin’s spokesman seemed to hint in recent days that the assault on A-F might reduce her enthusiasm for increased taxpayer spending on public education. That triggered criticisms from some defenders of the public school status quo. 

On Tuesday (November 5), Fallin communications director Alex Weintz said, in a statement to CapitolBeatOK, “”Governor Fallin, school superintendents and teachers are all on the same side: the side that argues that public education is important, that it can make a difference in the lives of our children, and that additional funding can improve our schools. That’s why she signed a budget this year that appropriates $90 million of new money for K-12 education.”

At the same time, Weintz detailed his critique of some of the A-F critics. 

Hofmeister was a Fallin appointee to the state Board of Education, but she left after 18 months to announce her challenge Dr. Barresi. She is a former public school teacher. Her children attended school in Jenks, a well-funded and successful public school district with administrators, staff and parents who have organized opposition to the pro-choice trends of the last decade.

Hofmeister is pursuing a Master’s degree in education administration. Her campaign themes position her, in her own words, as a Republican who “knows reforms can unravel without trust, respect and collaboration.” In early stages of the primary race, Hofmeister has gathered the support of many Tulsa-area Republican donors. 

The Democratic Party hopefuls have raised little money, but that is certain to change before year’s end. 

Dr. Herron is considered a conservative Democrat. He worked in the state Department of Education for former Superintendent Sandy Garrett and was Assistant state Superintendent for Financial Services at the start of the Barresi’s tenure at the state department.

At the agency, Herron ran regional centers specializing in advanced science and math courses. He is presently government relations director for Oklahoma Professional Educators, a non-union teachers association that has positioned itself as an alternative to the Oklahoma Education Association (OEA) and the American Federation of Teachers AFT, AFL-CIO).

Dr. Freda Deskin is founder of the ASTEC (Advanced Science and Technology Education Charter) Schools system in Oklahoma City. Her middle and high schools that have succeeded and grown under the state’s charter schools laws, passed in the late 1990s. She has been a key player in the Oklahoma State Charter School Association.

Deskin is a passionate advocate for public school charter schools, saying, “Charters get less money per student than other public schools, but do a good job.” Her evangelism for charter schools has made many urban Democrats, once dubious about charter schools, advocates of choice within the government-run system. 

Anderson is superintendent of the Bennington public school district in southeast Oklahoma. While her district earned a “B” in the first-round of the A-F grading structure for districts and school sites, she has criticized the system, saying it is biased against smaller districts such as hers.

Last year, at her campaign lift-off at the state Capitol, Anderson told CapitolBeatOK she opposes school choice, including the Lindsey Nicole Henry Scholarships benefitting special needs children. 

Cox is president of the Organization of Rural Elementary Schools, and co-chair of the education Vision Committee sponsored by the state School Board Association and the council for school administration, both ardent critics of A-F and of school choice. 

Holmes is best-known as a bare knuckles political operative, including from his work for former Commissioner of Labor Lloyd Fields. A former college professor, Holmes is stressing his background as a former Higher Education Regent. Still, he has also maintained his reputation for strong partisan rhetoric since announcing his campaign this fall.

He is sharply critical of Barresi, school choice and the Republican legislative majority, saying he wants “educators to control education.” In a statement to Oklahoma Watchdog, Holmes characterized Gov. Fallin’s recent comments on the school grading controversy as an attempt “to blackmail, harass, intimidate and threaten our educators.” 

You may contact Pat at Patrick@capitolbeatok.com