Barresi Is the Gift That Keeps on Giving for Anti-reform Education Activists

Barresi Superintendent
Janet Barresi, Oklahoma Superintendent of Public Instruction

Activism becomes easier if there is a big figure who is openly defiant and antagonistic toward the position of the activists. Think Lyndon Johnson during the Vietnam War or Richard Nixon during the end of the anti-war protests and the Watergate hearings.

State Superintendent for Public Instruction Janet Barresi has been that bigger-than-life, openly hostile, antagonistic figure for anti-reform education activists in Oklahoma. Rather than coming from some experience of education in her background, she is a dentist who suspended her practice to run for the position.

Barresi’s campaign rhetoric during 2010 was strident and openly disrespectful of anyone who was an education professional at the time. It was as if education professionals, especially teachers, were her opponents rather than her actual opponent. Her tone hasn’t varied much in the last four years even though the position is designed as the top education leader of education leaders. Instead she has defined her position more as hostile cop.

For instance, at one training event she told listeners who she believed to be sympathetic to what she defines as “reform” to tell their detractors to “go to hell”. Of course someone shared the video of that. Oops.

A new genre of blogging was created in Oklahoma in direct response to her leadership at the SDE. Early in her administration, an activist writer who many believe is working inside of the SDE started writing anonymously on their blog “OKEducationTruths” leveling harsh criticisms of Barresi’s policies and politics. The blog has garnered a large number of fans and followers.

Another education blogger of note is the well-known, accomplished Jenks Middle School Principal Rob Miller. Even though he identifies himself as being Republican, his personal blog, “A View From the Edge” has also captured a large following due to his straightforward criticisms of Barresi and the problems of the “reform” testing regime that captures much needed time and money of public schools.

Due to the many controversies of her “reform” administration, education has become it’s own active beat for many newspapers that previously switched available reporters between writing for education and religion. While good reporting about education can be seen of late, scant in-depth reporting from committed and trained education reporters has been the rule in Oklahoma with the exception being the Tulsa World that has had two dedicated education reporters for some time now. The Tulsa World’s Andrea Eger has been assigned to education since 2000.

Barresi’s abrasive style has led to some interesting personal encounters on the Board of Education even after Governor Fallin installed her own hand-picked members that she thought would be more compliant than the last crop. Instead, Barresi became incensed by opposition from member (and now candidate) Joy Hofmeister over the A-F school grading scheme that Barresi proposed. According to Hofmeister, after the meeting Barresi physically charged at her coming so close that some sources reported that Barresi struck or pushed Hofmeister. Hofmeister denies that there was any contact.

By the time the June primaries approached, even well-known Republican administrators like Miller and Republican teachers were finished supporting Barresi.

And so, It wasn’t any accident that she lost in that primary by a wide margin against another Republican candidate in Oklahoma, the reddest of red states, during their party primary in June. The winner, former Board member Joy Hofmeister, faces Democrat Dr. John Cox in the November election for Barresi’s position.

One especially notable event came early on in her administration and has now produced the latest scandal. Upon taking office, she immediately got into a conflict with her own State Board of Education when she wanted to hire former campaign staff into top positions at the State Department of Education. The laws at the time had the State Board of Education exercising oversight of the hiring and firing process. But after Barresi went to Governor Mary Fallin who then went to the Legislature with her concerns, the compliant Republican-dominated legislature changed the laws so that Barresi would have complete control of hiring and firing. That has now come back to haunt the state and consequently result in the latest of a long string of fiascos within Oklahoma’s education circles, teachers and administrators alike.

Just this week, lame duck Barresi’s office released information on a new position and hire. They obviously did that to beat a story that Tulsa World Education reporter Andrea Eger was completing and about to break about Barresi’s plans to establish a new assistant superintendent position that would be filled by a former law enforcement official and husband of the SDE’s General Counsel Larry Birney. Birney has no experience in education. The outrage has been quick, strong, and widespread.

One teacher in the comments on a Facebook post about it summed up many people’s’ frustration with Barresi, saying, “I am very seriously considering changing my registration to Democrat. The idiocy among certain portions of my Republican Party is absolutely frightening! The amount of money that has been wasted by whimsical decision-making at the state level is absolutely atrocious! Voters who push, ignorantly, for the flavor of the month in education, have NO idea what it is REALLY costing them financially!!!”

Remember, that move was possible due to the Republican dominated legislature who earlier gave Barresi sole authority to create positions and hire and fire personnel in the SDE.

So, today, at the State Board of Education meeting, one board member, Retired General Leo Baxter, openly called for her resignation. Also, Republican Representative Jason Smalley of Stroud went to the trouble to attend the meeting and wait for the public comments section of the meeting to repeat a call that he had made earlier for Barresi’s resignation.

Republicans like Governor Fallin who supported and embraced Barresi throughout her administration may be distressed by Barresi’s hostility and persistent antagonism, but to anti-reform activists, she is the gift that keeps on giving providing a handy rally point for their efforts.

That’s the news just up through today. There is no telling what will happen tomorrow and beyond. Watch this space.