To Comfort The Afflicted
And Afflict The Comfortable

To Comfort The Afflicted And Afflict The Comfortable

Monday, December 5, 2022


Oklahoma Education Drama Has National Implications



The Oklahoma State Department of Education annual Vision 2020 conference opened recently as Secretary of Education Robert Sommers announced his resignation. Sommers was a CEO of Carpe Diem charters, and a supporter of the former Indiana Chief for Change Tony Bennett.

Sommers’ exit followed the resounding electoral defeat of State Superintendent and Chief for Change Janet Barresi. It also followed the legislative defeats of high stakes third-grade testing and the withdrawal from Common Core.

Last week’s biggest news was also education-related. Democratic gubernatorial candidate Joe Dorman had once been more of an underdog than those who challenged Superintendent Barresi, but now a Rasmussen poll shows that his Republican opponent, Gov. Mary Fallin, is in a freefall.

Dorman was given the perfect opportunity to proclaim, “We cannot continue Fallin and Barresi’s destructive education policies.”

As Dorman pulled almost even with the incumbent, Fallin repudiated Barresi’s and her own agenda.

The story of how this happened will follow the break.

Vision 2020 also began as the state Supreme Court heard a legal challenge by four State Board of Education members, asking them to halt the legislature’s repeal of Common Core.

Chief for Change Barresi contributed combative talking points to the fray. Even if the Supreme Court expedites its ruling, she said, confusion about standards will reign as the new school year begins. The implication by the conservative Republican was that educators should blame the upcoming chaos on the Tea Party which rejected Common Core. In other words, the venom that Republican leaders once directed at unions and liberals is now aimed at the Tea Party base of their party.

It only took a few hours after hearing oral arguments for the Supreme Court to rule, 8-1, that the repeal of Common Core is constitutional.

Then, during a Vision 2020 workshop, a tech-savvy young teacher checked her phone and exclaimed that we should all read this blog!  A rumor was rapidly spreading that Fallin was considering Barresi as a replacement for Sommers as Secretary of Education! This is the account in Brett Dickerson’s Life at the Intersections.

Democratic candidate Dorman jumped on the issue, saying, “This is an absolutely bone-chilling idea for Oklahoma’s education system – but, given how Fallin and Barresi share the same regressive education policies, what’s most scary is how plausible it might be.”

Dorman, who had gained political momentum after condemning Common Core testing as an “unfunded nightmare,” continued, “Sommers’ retirement gives Fallin a prime opportunity to reverse the June primary results and to continue the ‘Fal-esi’ plan.

Dorman added, “This means more one-size-fits-all high-stakes tests, more flawed A-F grading for schools and continued overall lack of respect for public education. The voters last month soundly repudiated this agenda, but I fear Fallin didn’t get the message.”

The Tulsa World soon proclaimed, Fallin’s Office Says Barresi Not Being Considered for Secretary.

Fallin is belatedly getting the message. She later told the state Parent Teacher Association conference, “Now I’m telling you what my position is as governor. The superintendent is an independently elected official. She has her ideas. I have my ideas.”

According to the Tulsa World’s Kim Archer, in Gov. Mary Fallin Softens Her Stance on Third Grade Reading Test, a PTA delegate responded cryptically, “We heard some new talking points from her.” But the PTA went on to condemn “the overuse of standardized tests in the classroom [which] has taken away the ability of teachers to teach properly.” It called for a moratorium for high-stakes and field tests.

PTA President Jeffrey Corbett explained the votes saying that “testing companies are making millions of dollars off the backs of Oklahoma students.” The big cost, however, is that “We’re losing children. We’re losing the love for learning in our youth.’”

And that brings the week’s stories full circle. It was a diverse group of grassroots coalitions, albeit with excellent leadership, that inflicted so many defeats on corporate education reform.

This may result in the defeat of a seemingly invulnerable governor, as well as high-profile reform leaders. I expect these victories will not be limited to Oklahoma.

Dr. John Thompson, an education writer whose essays appear regularly at The Huffington Post, currently is working on a book about his experiences teaching for two decades in the inner city of OKC. He has a doctorate from Rutgers University and is the author of Closing the Frontier: Radical Responses in Oklahoma Politics.

Arnold Hamilton
Arnold Hamilton
Arnold Hamilton became editor of The Observer in September 2006. Previously, he served nearly two decades as the Dallas Morning News’ Oklahoma Bureau chief. He also covered government and politics for the San Jose Mercury News, the Dallas Times Herald, the Tulsa Tribune and the Oklahoma Journal.