Janet Barresi front-runner in race for Republican nomination for state superintendent
By Patrick B. McGuigan
Janet Barresi, a retired Oklahoma City dentist and founder of a successful urban charter school model for middle and high school, is widely considered the front-runner for the Republican party’s nomination as superintendent of public instruction. Political analysts believe she is likely to face state Sen. Susan Paddack as the Democratic nominee in November.
However, Brian Kelley of Edmond is contending with Barresi for the Grand Old Party’s nod in the July 27 primary.
At last month’s educational forum at Oklahoma City University, Barresi made clear her determination to bring heightened rigor and a pro-teacher mindset to the state’s top educational job.
She said in terms of curriculum and testing, “Work ready and college ready must mean the same thing.” She contended, “ I believe that rigor works. Excellent curriculum aligned with standards will improve for all.” Her views of the current system were critical: “As things now stand, our public schools have failed. They’ve failed our parents, failed our businesses and failed our children.”
Barresi has been campaigning for a year, saying, “ My campaign is not focused on politics, not focused on power. It’s focused on children. It’s not focused on minutiae, on kingdoms or bureaucracies, it’s focused on achievement. Our biggest problem in education is low expectations.”
Sunday (July 11), in an interview with CapitolBeatOK, Barresi said, “Because I’ve been so deeply involved in the development of charter schools, I’ve been accused of wanting to change all schools to charters in Oklahoma. The truth is that my happiest and best day in this cause will be when we close the last ‘charter’ school because we’ve arrived at the day when every school in Oklahoma is a school of choice, the first choice for parents and students.”
Baressi said, “My 15 years of involvement with this issue have taught me some important lessons. Local control is very important to the process of maintaining schools within our communities. I’ve learned what devastation underfunded and unfunded mandates can cause for public schools, and how mandates are restricting creativity within those schools.”
Pressed on her themes of educational leadership at the local level, Barresi said, “I believe we underestimate what’s possible when an effective education leader gets to staff and run her or his own school, developing a group of teachers and staff devoted to one goal: excellence. Strong accountability and transparency are fundamental to school reform.”
Barresi is no fan of the dominant state labor union, the Oklahoma Education Association. She told CapitolBeatOK, “When it comes to teachers, I’ve found there are really two groups: teachers and union bosses. That’s blunt but it’s the truth. The great majority of teachers are drawn to my message.
“I am driven by conversations like the one I had last year. I had a teacher hold my arm and say with passion and conviction that she felt as if she was in a box, being told what to teach and how to teach it. She said, ‘I know I’ve been put in a box. When I’m in a box and unable to create, my kids are in a box. We have to get out of the box created by the system and respond to student needs.’
“We have a system that is driven to an unhealthy degree by testing. … Instead of concentrating on what is best for students and children, a lot of the dynamic has been dominated by tests themselves, and by the design companies. The debate has been territorial and tied to pass rates. What happens then is that teachers are stuck in a crazy rush from one test to another from the first day of school until April. Then, in the closing weeks they and the students have lost the energy to respond to whatever the test might tell them. The tests are not suitable and a lot of the learning is mere memorization, which is then lost soon after the test.”
Barresi has been pressing her debate over the role of educational testing, contending, “We should be looking at using a handful of reliable and proven instruments, like the ACT and the Iowa tests, and not the mishmash of standardized tests, self-developed instruments, the state now has.
“When it comes to testing, we need quicker and more productive turn-around time. There has to be a tighter tie between the results of a test and the work done with the individual child, how they are performing and how to look forward so they can do better.
“Rather than so much reliance on standardized tests we need a return to formative tests of the kind you and I remember. Those were tests that regularly checked progress, for instance weekly spelling tests, pop quizzes and other instruments that measured progress regularly, identified gaps, allowed time for teachers to intervene and to fix gaps for the student.
“As for the administrative side of the job, I plan to run an efficient and effective education department.”
Barresi has one of the strongest statements of any candidate seeking public office when it comes to State Question 744, the OEA-sponsored ballot initiative that will be decided in November. She told CapitolBeatOK, “I am against it. The leading opponent I will face is sitting on the fence on that one. If you peel back the layers of that initiative, you see mandates and tentacles that will reach into every aspect of state government.
“SQ 744 will burden the state every year with a moving target, one based on other states and not on our own needs. It would cripple state services and increase taxes. Every aspect of government would be cut except K-12. That also means that if SQ 744 passes, in education CareerTech, early childhood and Higher Education would face cuts. State Question 744 is the worst public policy proposal ever written in our state. It will cripple Oklahoma.”
Before earning a DDS degree and practicing for two decades as a dentist, Barresi earned degrees in education, and speech and language disorders.
In Oklahoma City, she was a member of the organizing group for the Keep Improving District Schools (KIDS) Project of the Oklahoma City Public Schools Foundation. She founded Independence Charter Middle School, then a high school now known as Harding Charter Prep. This year, Newsweek magazine named Harding the 68th best public high school in America.
When Newsweek gave Harding those high marks, Barresi said, “When we founded Harding, the naysayers claimed low-income students could not handle the rigor of a college preparatory curriculum. After seven years of operation, it’s clear the critics were wrong and the Newsweek ranking is further proof of that fact. I believe we can now take the lessons learned at Harding and apply them to all Oklahoma schools.”
Brian Kelley, Barresi’s opponent in the Republican primary, said he is leaning in favor of State Question 744. In his appearance at the Oklahoma City University forum in June, most of Kelley’s answers were succinct. Asked if he opposed forced school consolidation and favored expansion of state charter schools, Kelley responded, “Yes, and yes.”
Kelley said his top priority as superintendent would be to promote professional accountability. Like other hopefuls for the job, he promised to nurture and protect the state’s early childhood education programs.
Richard Cooper, a school teacher, is running as an independent and will be on the November ballot along with the Republican and Democratic nominees.