With less than a month until the Nov. 2 general election, the remaining three candidates for state superintendent of public instruction haven’t changed the tune of their messages ” for the most part.
Since much of the media and public’s attention is focused on State Question 744, it can be easy to forget the next superintendent will have no more sway than any other voter come November. Yet the question on the ballot is either defining or obscuring each candidate’s philosophy on the Legislature’s role in relation to the state’s highest education system ” and it’s a complicated relationship.
State Sen. Susan Paddack, D-Ada, decided to throw her hat in the race after serving in the Senate since 2004. She defeated Democrat challenger Jerry Combrink in the primary election.
Janet Barresi, a dentist and founder of two charter schools, spent the past few years serving on education task forces, like the Teacher Performance Pay Initiative, under outgoing House Speaker Chris Benge. Barresi defeated Republican Brian Kelly in the primary election.
Both will face independent Richard E. Cooper in November. Cooper has been an educator for nearly 30 years and teaches at East Central University in Ada. There is no incumbent after current Superintendent Sandy Garrett announced she would not seek re-election after holding the seat since 1991.
On the state question, Paddack did not give a definitive “yes” or “no,” and said her take on the issue has been misinterpreted. She believes voters will make the right decision, and she will abide by the will of the people on the issue if elected. But that doesn’t mean she thinks it’s the best way to fund education. The question would require Oklahoma to fund education at the regional average. There is not a funding mechanism built into the measure.
“We are not where we need to be in regional funding; we’re not even at 90 percent of the regional average,” Paddack said. “I have very serious concerns that there is no funding mechanism with this state question.”
Barresi has consistently spoken out against the state question.
“I remain very strongly opposed to State Question 744,” Barresi said. “Every Oklahoman wants more money in the classroom, but this is not the fiscally responsible way to do it.”
Cooper supports the state question after initially opposing it at the start of his campaign.
“It’s time in Oklahoma that we either put up or shut up,” he said. “This is the first step in saying education funding is no longer a priority, it’s a given. And then we go from there.”
Even Gov. Brad Henry has weighed in voicing his opposition to the state question. Barresi said bipartisan opposition shows that it is a flawed measure.
If the state question does not pass, the winner of the superintendent race will still face hurdles with budget shortfalls. Both Paddack and Barresi said if elected they would request an audit by the Office of State Auditor and Inspector for the Department of Education. Cooper would like to look for areas in districts and in the education department where funds are not being used wisely, whether or not the state question passes.
The winner in November will also have to answer to teachers wondering if they can expect to be employed next year and to those entering the field and perhaps finding few openings. Federal stimulus money helped keep some teachers on the job this year, but looking ahead, the candidates know that money will not be coming back.
Paddack said she would ask teachers to stay the course and know that, while times may be tough, qualified teachers will be needed in the coming years. Barresi said she would like to work with the Legislature to increase local control at schools so districts can determine where their dollars should be spent and to eliminate unfunded and under-funded mandates. Cooper wants to encourage teachers to not abandon the profession or take jobs in other states. He would like to see new forms of instruction and standards and reward the best teachers for their efforts.
As the election nears, Paddack has the endorsement of Henry, and Barresi has the endorsement of U.S. Sen. James Inhofe. Cooper does not have a marquee name supporting his campaign, and said the job should not be partisan, but should go to the person most qualified and not the one who is the most politically connected.
Cooper admitted he is a long shot to win, but said no matter who wins, people statewide should care about who is in the job as that person will shape state education in the future.
“The race is about the importance of public education in Oklahoma,” Cooper said. “It should always be about the daily teaching and learning in the classroom.” “Sarah Clough Chambers
Kelley Chambers contributed reporting to this article.
top to bottom Janet Barresi, Richard E. Cooper and Susan Paddack. Photos/Mark Hancock