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“It is so very exciting. It is fast-paced. This is a 24/7 job. There is not downtime,” Barresi said.

“This is so incredibly rewarding and so exciting to have the opportunity to be of service to my state and to the children of the state to truly reform education and to bring effective instruction.”

In an interview with Oklahoma Gazette, Barresi stressed the importance of a good education not only for the individual student, but for the greater good of the state.

“Education is the way out of poverty; education is the way for opportunity,” she said. “This is something I worked so hard for and am so honored to have the opportunity to be able to do this.”

Since the Republican Barresi took over the spot long-held by Democrat Sandy Garrett, changes have faced the state Department of Education. While there have been challengers, Barresi received support from the Legislature and much of her agenda has been implemented.

However, tough times are facing schools during the next school year, as a 4.1 percent budget cut, piled on top of deep budget cuts for the last two school years, loom on the horizon.

THE 3Rs

The
main thrust of Barresi’s plan to change public education is known as
“the 3R Agenda.” The Rs stand for “rethinking, restructuring and
reforming” the state’s education system.

During the 2011 legislative session, many of the bills that comprise the 3R Agenda passed.

“This
session was quite historic in what was able to be achieved,” Barresi
said. “I am so grateful to the House and Senate membership, the
president pro tempore (of the Senate) and the governor. All of those
people were all on the same team; they were all on the same message.
When you’ve got that type of unity and that type of teamwork, you can
accomplish quite a bit, and that’s why we had such an incredibly
historic session.”

Measures touted
as part of the 3R Agenda included Senate Bill 346, which ends social
promotion past the third grade, and SB 969, the Equal Opportunity
Education Scholarship Act, which gives tax incentives to individuals and
corporations that make donations to scholarship-granting organizations
that assist parents in low-performing school districts who send their
children to private schools.

The
ending of social promotion past grade three, Barresi said, is important
because the foundation of a child’s learning is built upon the ability
to read. After the third grade, she said, children are no longer
learning to read, but instead reading to learn.

“If
these kids aren’t reading appropriately at grade level, they will
immediately be left behind,” Barresi said. “The acceleration of being
left behind will increase as they enter into the middle-school years.
You finally get to the point where you have an eighth grader that is so
frustrated, 85 percent of our dropouts decide to do so by the end of
eighth grade.”

The scholarship act increases parental choice, she said, and encourages public schools to better their performance.

“It introduces competition. Any time you have competition, you’re constantly improving your product,” Barresi said. “This
is the free market. Parents have before, in the area of choice and
education, voted with their feet. If they do not like they way the
school is responding to their child, then they have the opportunity to
leave.”

Other legislative victories
Barresi counted include a measure that gives schools a letter grade,
rather than the current Academic Performance Index system, as well as a
measure ending trial de novo, which allows a teacher to appeal his or
her firing in court.

Another part
of the effort to imple ment the 3R Agenda, she said, is the
restructuring of the Department of Education to focus on three core
areas: making sure students are ready for work and college upon
graduation; promoting literacy and mathematics proficiency; and
increasing focus on science, technology, engineering and mathematics.

One
of the major upcoming initiatives she hopes to implement is a
longitudinal data system that would help superintendents, principals and
teachers better target problem areas for students and work to provide
solutions.

Barresi likened the
initiative to one started by former New York City Mayor Rudy Giuliani
that used police data to target crime down to the street level, in an
effort hailed by many as a key to making the city less dangerous.

“We
should be able to come up with three or four data points that will
predict for us if a child is struggling in learning how to read. Right
now, that doesn’t exist,” she said. “We have to be able to target
specific populations of students and be able to identify gaps in
different communities, so teachers and principals can plan together on
how to target that population of students.”

The
plan is to drill down to the student level to see how their learning
has progressed. The data would be accumulated through quick assessment
tests throughout the year, she said.

“As
soon as (teachers and principals) get the information, they can see
where the gaps are in learning and move in quickly to alleviate that gap
and quickly intervene with that child and not let it languish until the
end of the year,” Barresi said.

FUNDING FLEXIBILITY

The
budget for common education will be presented to the state Board of
Education this month, Barresi said, and more cuts are expected.

The
budget passed by the Legislature calls for a 4.1-percent cut, with
state funds replacing some of the stimulus money used in the past few
years to plug funding holes. That amounts to a cut of about $100
million, she said.

The department
is focusing on programs that directly affect instruction in the
classroom, as well as funding levels mandated by statute and federally
funded programs that are contingent on state funding, Barresi said.

After that, however, there’s very little room, she said.

“We are having to make some very, very
difficult decisions here. We’re focusing on those programs that directly
affect instruction in the classroom,” Barresi said. “This will be a
most dif icult year. I’ve described it before as
‘heartbreaking.’ But this is also a year for an opportunity for those in
their communities who really support their schools to come and work
with their superintendents and find some innovative ways to continue the
important programs those schools offer.”

The department and individual districts likely will seek help from the private sector to plug some of the budget holes.

“After
we release the budget, we’re going to be very aggressive about going to
the private community, to our state’s corporations who time and time
again step up to the plate and are very helpful with education, and to
foundations to help us get through this year,” Barresi said.

“This
will be a year we’re calling for all hands on deck, to be a part of the
solution. Not just for us to hunker down and not improve at all, but to
use this as an opportunity to think of new ways to fund programs, new
ways to reach their academic goals. Districts will need assistance in
the area of tutoring; they will need all types of assistance because they’re laying off personnel.”

QUESTIONS OF AUTHORITY

Her
first Board of Education meeting was a contentious one, with one board
member saying Barresi was acting like a dictator, and another saying
Barresi’s pregnant legislative liaison appointee would be “useless”
because her baby was due around the time of the legislative session.

Politicians
and commentators denounced the board, and a measure was passed in the
Legislature expanding the scope of Barresi’s authority, allowing her to
bypass the board to hire staff.

In
January, the board blocked some of Barresi’s hires, including her
Communications Director Damon Gardenhire and Chief of Staff Jennifer
Carter. Board members challenged Carter’s qualifications and questioned
why Gardenhire was being paid by the 3R Initiative, a nonprofit group
that has helped promote the 3R Agenda.

After
being blocked, Gardenhire and Carter’s salaries were paid by the 3R
Initiative, and Sen. Andrew Rice, D-Oklahoma City, asked for an attorney
general opinion on the matter.

Attorney
General Scott Pruitt, who is also a Republican, stated that those staff
members could not be considered employees if they were being paid by an
outside group, and any decisions they made during that period would be
voided.

“We were working with the
information we had to do the best thing we could for the department,”
Barresi said. “Moving forward, the individuals in question are on the
payroll and have been for quite some time. We’re just moving forward.”

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