The state superintendent-elect considers her election a 'mandate' to reform the state's school system.
State Superintendent-elect Janet Barresi said serious reform of the public school system must happen now " even if that means losing her job during the next election.
Barresi was one of six participants in a panel discussion on Nov. 18 following a screening of the hard-hitting documentary "Waiting for 'Superman,'" which examines how the country's public education system has failed many children who depend on it for a better life.
The screening, which played to a full house at the AMC Quail Springs Mall 24, was one of 12 screenings in several major cities sponsored by the U.S. and state chambers. The panel discussion was held in the theater immediately following the movie, which is directed by Davis Guggenheim ("An Inconvenient Truth.")
Besides Barresi, who won election Nov. 2 to replace longtime state Superintendent Sandy Garrett, the panel consisted of Tracy McDaniel, principal at KIPP Reach in Oklahoma City; Bill Price, chairman of the Oklahoma School Choice Coalition; Ed Allen, president of the Oklahoma City chapter of the American Federation of Teachers; David Blatt, director of the Oklahoma Policy Institute; and Phyllis Hudecki, executive director of the Oklahoma Business and Education Coalition.
All panelists agreed that something must be done to improve the public education system in Oklahoma.
Barresi and others argued that reading in early grade schools levels must significantly improve for students to be able to build a foundation upon which the rest of their education is based.
"We need to fundamentally change the way we teach in elementary school," McDaniel said. "This doesn't make sense. We have one of the top pre-K programs in the nation, but then our kids can't read by third grade. Social promotion is a killer."
The movie illustrates in meticulous detail how teachers' unions, while at one time an important part of allowing female teachers to receive a decent salary, have become one of the main barriers to school reform by keeping ineffective teachers in the classroom.
Allen, the president of the Oklahoma City teachers' union, said his group is willing to give ground in the name of creating better schools and distanced the local union from the national one.
"I'm not going to defend anything our national union did or didn't do in that film, because I don't think it's defensible," Allen said to applause from the audience. "We are 100 percent all in on reform, and we will talk about any issue to make things better. My pledge to you and the whole community is that we will do everything in our power to make change happen."
One of the school systems that played heavily in the film was the Washington, D.C., school district, which saw upheaval when the city's mayor, Adrian Fenty, hired a new chancellor to oversee the district. The major reforms Fenty and the chancellor brought to the district, which helped improve test scores, resulted in backlash from the teachers' union and administrators " which has been cited by Fenty as the reason he lost re-election this year.
Barresi said she is willing to put herself in a similar situation to reform Oklahoma schools, though she said she doesn't think she would suffer a similar backlash from Oklahoma voters.
"I did not get in this to be state superintendent for a long period of time and just try to run after votes," Barresi said. "This is a situation where we must reform our state's education system to move forward as a state. I'm not worried about losing my job because I can tell you with over 55 percent of the vote and an 18-point victory, I consider that a mandate to reform schools. I think I'll lose my job if I don't."
Barresi said her first priority when she takes office in January will be to look for waste and ineffective programs and use the money gained from eliminating them for classrooms. Barresi also said she hopes to work with the Legislature to end social promotion, create a student data system, increase the rigor of curriculum and get teachers relevant professional development.
In the end, Barresi said, reforming schools cannot be done by her alone.
"This is not a problem just a few people are going to fix," Barresi said. "This is not a problem just for me and the state Department of Education or our legislators or our governor. This is a problem that every single citizen in the state of Oklahoma must be held accountable for. This is not just someone else's child. I don't want you to misunderstand this movie and think this is just a product of the inner city or a few schools in suburbia. This is throughout the state of Oklahoma. And the answer is in everyone in the state."
Photo: Janet Barresi
Photo Credit: Mark Hancock