Barresi, who was elected in November and is the first state superintendent since Sandy Garrett first took office 20 years ago, was one of four school officials from around the nation to testify April 7 at the U.S. House Committee on Education and the Workforce, as Congress begins to look at reauthorization of the No Child Left Behind Act.
In her testimony, Barresi urged Congress to loosen some of the constraints by the U.S. Department of Education, but also highlighted an education reform plan, known as the 3R Agenda.
The three Rs stand for “rethinking, restructuring and reforming” the state’s education system, and the agenda was announced in March by Barresi, along with members of the 3R Initiative, a nonprofit group formed in 2010 to help advance education reform in Oklahoma.
The group was also responsible for paying the salaries of some of Barresi’s hires after a contentious state Board of Education meeting in February, in which the board voted not to confirm the new staff members.
Barresi said “rethinking” includes a complete reassessment of how education is delivered in the classroom, such as embracing new tools like digital learning. “Restructuring” includes changes to the state Department of Education, moving it from a regulatory agency to one that focuses on service to districts and helping each district be successful. She said “reforming” includes several initiatives that would change the way the state measures school performance, ending social promotion and allowing parents to send their children to private school if the public school they are attending is not performing well.
Several bills currently winding their way through the legislative process are part of implementing the 3R Agenda, and Barresi praised the Legislature’s work on the bills.
“The state legislative session has reached the halfway mark, and this is a good time to take stock of the significant progress we’re making,” Barresi said. “I’m grateful for the opportunity to update leaders in Washington about our plans to rethink, restructure and reform Oklahoma’s system of education. The center of gravity for education reform has shifted to states like Oklahoma, and I want to provide insight into the bold action we’re taking here.”
Those bills include: SB 346 and HB 1550 — authored by Sen. Clark Jolley, R-Edmond, and Rep. Sally Kern, R-Oklahoma City, which ends social promotion after the third grade for students deficient in reading.
The center of gravity for education reform has shifted to states like Oklahoma.
SB 348 and HB 1456 — authored by Jolley and Rep. Lee Denney, R-Cushing, which would give letter grades to schools based on performance, achievement and other factors.
SB 969 — authored by Sen. Dan Newberry, R-Tulsa, and Denney, which would give tax credits to individuals and corporations donating money to organizations that provide scholarships for students to attend private schools.
Barresi told the Oklahoma Gazette that she hopes these reforms will increase academic performance and prepare students for both the workforce and college upon graduation.
“These and many of the other things they’re working on now and in years to come are very important components in insuring children are ready for the job demands of the 21st century,” Barresi said. “‘Work-ready’ and ‘college-ready’ have got to mean the same thing.”
Some of those components are not without critics, though.
State Sen. Jim Wilson, D-Tahlequah, said problems exist with the public education system, but bills like SB 969 will only exacerbate them.
“It’s a backdoor voucher system to let people send their kids to parochial schools or any other school,” Wilson said. “I don’t want to scrap public education. We just can’t do that. What’s going to happen if the current administration has their way is we’re going to take kids out of the public education system as long as they don’t misbehave. As soon as they misbehave, they’ll be back there. It will be a dumping ground for kids who have issues or for kids with parents who don’t have any wherewithal. That’s my concern.”
Barresi said the scholarships were not vouchers, but offered parents a broader range of choices and increased competition to improve education.
Wilson said education programs that work, such as the Harlem Children’s Zone, do more than just offer a new way to educate children; they help parents provide a nurturing home environment where education is valued.
“Prosperity is a wonderful thing,” Wilson said. “If our folks in this state were just making a living, it gets them off the government dole. It gets help back at home from them, keeps them off drugs. There are all sorts of wonderful things about making a living. We want cheap labor, so we’re not going to let them make a living. I think that’s why kids don’t get exposure at home.”