‘Superman’ panelists tout school choice, procedural and other reforms

By Patrick B. McGuigan

Published: 20-Nov-2010

The educational, cultural and political whirlwind of discussion and debate triggered by the documentary film “Waiting for Superman” continued to impact America in recent weeks, including in Oklahoma City. Hundreds of leaders from across the political spectrum gathered to view the motion picture at a November 18 showing co-sponsored by the State Chamber.

After the film, a panel discussion ensued, guided by State Chamber President Fred Morgan. Rhetorically and in terms of impact, the most interesting comments could have been those of Ed Allen, president of the Oklahoma City local of the American Federation of Teachers (AFT, AFL-CIO).

Late in the program, Allen strengthened commentary offered a few weeks ago after a previous local showing of Davis Guggenheim’s documentary. Allen said:

“I’m not going to defend anything that our national union did in that film, because it’s indefensible. And, I don’t think anybody would say that’s the way this union local has been behaving. I am willing to discuss any issue that needs to be discussed. I don’t have any issue with the question that change is needed, but we want to be at the table. We will do everything in our power to make change happen.

“It’s close, it’s within reach. You can almost taste the possibility of real change. It’s within our grasp. We’re going to make it happen.”

Allen’s discourse was answered with thunderous applause.

The “star” of the non-cinematic portion of the afternoon was Janet Barresi, Oklahoma’s incoming Superintendent of Public Instruction.

In opening remarks, Dr. Barresi said the state “has a great pre-K program that has to be developed and improved.” Building on excellence, she said, “It is crucial to end social promotion especially past the third grade, because at that point students s to learning to read and start reading to learn.”

David Blatt of Oklahoma Policy Institute, a progressive policy think thank, cautioned that when it comes to educational improvement, “There is not a single great idea or a panacea. We need quality teachers and more and better instruction. We need to develop the resources to fund this.”

Bill Price, an attorney and chairman of the Oklahoma Council of Public Affairs’ school choice coalition, asserted that in terms of school governance, “Principals need the ability to hire and fire people, and the state must get rid of ‘de novo’ judicial review of hiring and firing decisions in the schools. Most or many superintendents eventually give up trying to fire bad teachers because it is so incredibly hard.”

Price continued, in a vein echoed just minutes later in Allen’s comments, “I am hopeful. I’ve never seen such a movement as this, and a time such as this.”

In opening comments, union president Allen said, “I don’t have any problem with doing away with ‘trial de novo’ when it comes to making easier the system for removing misbehaving teachers. This local has done a ‘180’ on some issues. It is time to look at some situations differently.

“We support a system where an independent officer looks at a possible dismissal, somebody looking over the paperwork with a fresh set of eyes to confirm what’s happened. We believe a good system can be established for the school board to review these decisions [without it going to the courts]. There is emotion in this issue quite often, especially when it’s something happening to your children.

“I only caution that no one side has all the answers. We need to avoid letting either extreme dominate in education. For true reform and change to be embedded in the system, there has to be buy-in by all the stakeholders.”

Tracy McDaniel, founder and principal of Oklahoma City’s KIPP (Knowledge is Power Program) Academy, where inner city youth are soaring academically, reflected, “We talk about higher expectations for our children, but we also need higher expectations for our adults. I would like to see wiser use of performance management tools in education, to change the way we look at teachers. Let’s don’t evaluate on the minimum bar, but change the standards.”

A portion of the panel discussion focused explicitly on proposals for increased parental choice in education, to include private schools.

Price was the most direct exponent of scholarships, tax credits and other mechanisms to support parental and student options. He said, “The ideal would be complete and total choice in education with the parents empowered. It would be difficult and perhaps impossible to do this statewide all at once. However, we should work to create more opportunities for parents to vote with their feet to choose schools for themselves. … Public schools were never intended to be a monopoly.”

OK Policy’s Blatt took a critical view of some choice advocacy, saying, “There is room for more choice within the public school system. No Child Left Behind had faults but it has led to a positive change in the system’s accountability. But we must keep public dollars within the public system, where there is accountability and representation. I am concerned about efforts to take public dollars outside that public system.”

Also participating in the panel discussion was Phyllis Hudecki of the Oklahoma Business and Education Coalition, a group supportive of higher standards and pro-choice reforms.