Monday, January 10, 2011

Barresi takes the reins

[This Marlin Oil advertorial appears in the January 13 edition of The City Sentinel.]

Superintendent of Public Instruction Janet Barresi took the oath of office on Monday, and in the long run that may be almost as significant as the start of Gov. Mary Falllin’s term.

Barresi is a proven reformer, having established two charter schools serving students right in the middle of the Oklahoma City public school district. Her Harding Charter Prep High School has been recognized as one of the best such schools in the nation. Barresi is determined to fashion higher academic standards and more accountability in a system where performance has been flat and transparency spotty.

Even before she assumed command at the agency, Barresi had asked for a performance and financial audit of the state Education Department. This is a sound instinct at an agency that has been under departing Superintendent Sandy Garrett for two decades.

To be clear, charter schools would not have come to Oklahoma when they did -- 11 years ago -- without Garrett.

Last year, she worked with sponsors of the historic special-needs scholarship program that passed, assuring the legislation backed by a coalition of conservatives and a few Democrats passed legal muster. Then, Garrett boldly criticized school districts who sought to kill the program before it ever got started.

Garrett has even advocated scrutiny of high legal fees paid to private lawyers to represent school districts, and put in place mechanisms to track those expenditures.

Still, it is not maligning her to state that Garrett has been, by and large, an ally of the education establishment. That was probably inevitable in light of her Democratic party affiliation. Last year’s Democratic nominee was in every particular determined to carry water for the status quo. Voters delivered an overwhelming verdict in Barresi’s favor.

With Barresi’s arrival on the scene, there will inevitably be conflict with the permanent statewide bureaucracy in public education, including with the Oklahoma Education Association. However, the once all-powerful labor union may have permanently damaged its clout with the vicious campaign, funded by the NEA, that tried to shove through State Question 744, a crippling shift in tax money toward common education.

Of greater concern to the new superintendent might be the power of the state Board of Education. Garrett was silent on S.Q. 744, but an absolute majority of the board supported the atrocious initiative. Barresi methodically criticized it as the wrong way to improve education in the state. In Oklahoma’s constitutional structure, boards and commissions can undermine executive power.

While she should always be willing to heed good counsel regardless of its origins, Barresi inherits a tough situation where she will have plenty of foes within the agency, and a board majority opposed to her reformist philosophy supporting more choices for students and parents, accountability, administrative efficiencies, cost sensitivity, and academic rigor.

All Barresi has going for her is the overwhelming mandate she got from state voters, and likely help from Fallin and the Legislature.

That should be enough.

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