The Pryor Times

March 8, 2014

State Superintendent candidates talk education

Staff Writer
Cydney Baron

PRYOR, OK — Candidates bash Barresi

Three of five candidates for State Superintendent of Education attended a student-led forum Thursday.

Dr. John Cox, Dr. Jack Herron and Dr. Ivan Holmes attended while incumbent Janet Barresi, who declined to attend, sent her campaign manager Sam Stone.

While their platforms differ, the candidates agreed what’s best for education is less Barresi.

“Thanks for being here and thank you to the junior class. They are the reason we’re all here tonight and they’re who we’re fighting for,” said Cox. “It’s time to give back to public education. We are not a priority in Oklahoma, too much focus is on charter and virtual schools.”

 Herron, who served as Assistant State Superintendent for Financial Services, introduced himself as a numbers guy. “There’s money for education in the budget,” he said.

“I know where the funding is in the budget,” said Herron. “It’s time to put someone in that knows what they’re doing.”

Herron said he is the only candidate in the race that has managed a K-12 school.

Holmes introduced himself by saying he went on a fact-finding mission, visiting 280 superintendents across the state, listening to their opinions on current issues facing education.

“We are last in the country in funding. Our governor has done nothing for education but bully educators,” said Holmes. “Barresi is not a friend of education, it’s time to turn education back over to the teachers.”

Stone began by saying, “Janet believes in the things she’s doing.”

“Her goal is to make sure every kid has a chance to succeed and go beyond their dreams. We haven’t been doing this, we’ve been making excuses,” said Stone. “Janet got into this because she wasn’t happy with the education her kids were receiving.”

He said Barresi was the first in the state to push laws for charter and virtual schools.

“Janet was a speech pathologist in Oklahoma schools so she knows you can succeed no matter what the obstacle,” said Stone.

Stone concluded his introduction by encouraging students to remain involved in political issues.

“I’m disappointed, at only one of these forums has the superintendent showed up. It’s hard to discuss these issues if she’s not here. Barresi is the reason we have problems in funding,” said Holmes. “I asked her why this is, she said superintendents have the funding, they just don’t know how to use it. That’s just not true.”

“First of all, Janet has requested additional funding every year. The state was on the edge of bankruptcy and our governor ha done a good job of turning it around,” Stone said. “Do we need more money? Yes. But there’s no magic wand for this.”

Stone said it’s all about learning to work within the system, and remembering that cops and road crews need funding too.

Cox said education funding is going to virtual and charter schools, but his focus is on the 95 percent of students in public schools.

Stone addressed the candidates and the audience saying, “You’re all lucky in some regards, not everyone has the ability to attend a school like this.

“There are homeless students and teen moms who couldn’t attend a school like this. A charter or virtual school might be the only option and who are we to deny them that?” Stone said.

“Those students wouldn’t have access to those schools anyway,” Cox said, eliciting a round of applause. “I don’t have a problem with them, I just don’t think they should be taking away public education funding.”

As the cheers died down, the candidates switched gears to discuss teacher pensions and retirement.

Stone started by ensuring educators they have nothing to worry about, that there is “zero danger of anything interfering with them.”

“His zero percent danger is just for right now and doesn’t guarantee protection in the near future,” said Cox.

Herron, a retired teacher, said there are six or seven teacher pension bills in the works right now. He issued a call for vigilance, saying in the past, the country has borrowed from teacher pensions to pay other debt.

“What makes us think they won’t borrow from our pensions again?” said Holmes, also a retired teacher, who also called for vigilance and aggression.

Cox, Herron, and Holmes all agreed that automatic retention upon failure of the third grade reading test is degrading to students.

“It also takes away local control, which is a huge deal for me. This takes the parents and teachers out of the equation. When it comes to retention, I look at how old the student will be as a senior, if they will become a drop-out risk. This, what they’re doing, is just blind retention. We’re demoralizing a lot of little eight-year-olds,” said Cox.

Herron said, “We’re embarrassing our students and stressing our educators with no sound educational basis.”

“If I was in third grade now, I’d never get out,” Holmes said, to the amusement of the audience. “Education used to be simple.”

Stone said he’d simply like to disagree.

“I’m in agreement with Janet. We need to focus on the ability to read. Sixty-three percent of people in jail can’t read. Adults who can’t order dinner without a menu with pictures is more embarrassing, I promise,” said Stone. “And would it be the worst thing in the world to have your kids home another year?”

The three candidates agreed in their disapproval of Common Core Standards.

Herron called it a buzz word coined by one of the highest paid on Barresi’s staff, adding that it isn’t actually curriculum.

“Both sides scream that the standards are too conservative or too liberal. So since they’re both screaming, I think we’re doing something right,” said Stone.

“Mr. Stone previously said ‘only 138’ students were failed because of these tests and standards last year. But let me say that’s 138 people who will never have a high school diploma, who will never join the services. How degrading is it for them to have to go before a board and beg for their diploma?” said Cox. “If students work hard for 13 years they deserve a diploma. That’s how I got mine and it’s served me pretty well.”

Herron said Common Core Standards are “developmentally inappropriate,” sparking more cheers from the audience. To which Stone said, “developmentally inappropriate is just a buzz word,” eliciting silence from the group.

“Kids in other countries, in Massachusetts and New York, are doing this work and harder. We’re falling behind,” said Stone. “And education is key to economic growth. We’re still using a model created during the industrial revolution.”

“It’s very difficult for me to listen to this, as a teacher. I’ve lived in foreign countries. The comparison isn’t fair because in this country, we’re charged with educating every single person,” said Herron.

In regard to end of instruction tests, Herron said they don’t do anything except cause stress.

“Trevor, my grandson, is in kindergarten. He came home from school with homework on the second day of school and told me he wasn’t going to do it. He has to know what a trapezoid is, and I’m not sure I even know what one is,” said Herron, receiving more cheers. “He said, ‘it hurts my brain!’ Well, it hurts mine too, Trevor.”

“No one likes tests, but they are a way of life,” said Stone.

Stone said he hates the dialogue about “lower standards for poor kids.” He added that it only adds up to 26 hours of testing over 13 years of education.

“We have to make sure an Oklahoma diploma means something,” said Stone. “Plus, in a lot of them, they can always re-test.

“We’re behind countries like Estonia and back sliding doesn’t help anyone,” Stone said regarding the A-F grading system for schools. “If I got an F, I’d be mad too but I’d figure out how to fix it. Janet’s stuck her neck out, but she’s the only one presenting ideas and solutions.”

Several teachers attending the event responded with, “No she’s not!”

In regard to retaining and attracting teachers, Herron said “we have to change the culture.”

“Right now the culture is stress. Teaching is a tough job,” said Herron. “And Webster’s describes reforms as positive changes. So stop calling these reforms, I haven’t seen a darn thing for the better.”

Herron said these reforms are a large part of why teachers are quitting and new ones are hesitant to take their place.

In their closing statements, Cox said to visualize standing on a cliff.

“On June 24, we’re all on the cliff together. Either we Deskin and Barresi over, or they push education over,” said Cox. (Deskin is another Republican candidate for the position.)

“We need a superintendent that knows what FFA is, Mrs. Barresi doesn’t. We also need someone that will answer phone calls,” said Herron.

Holmes concluded by holding a dental drill in the air for the audience to see.

“I asked Mrs. Barresi if she knew what this was. It’s the first time she’s been able to answer a question correctly. I told her that if being a dentist makes you an educator, then being an educator should make you a dentist. I’d be happy to drill her teeth in the back of the room if she could be bothered to attend one of these meetings. But, you couldn’t hold me responsible for anything that went wrong. After all, she’s never responsible for anything either,” said Holmes.

“Tonight you’ve heard a lot of rhetoric and conspiracy theories. It gets silly, really. We need to honestly evaluate our schools,” said Stone. “I understand there’s a lot of fear and stress, but schools that have accepted this reform are excelling.”