There will be pressure on the entire cadre of statewide officeholders to meet the expectations of voters; however, of all the newly elected state officials, none faces the immediate scrutiny and pressure of new Republican State Superintendent of Public Instruction Janet Barresi.
Elected on a mandate for reform and results, Barresi enjoyed relatively unprecedented support from the Oklahoma City business community, which finally awoke to the realization that education, economic development and prosperity dance to the same tune. And with legis lative priorities such as “transformation education reform,” “increased instruction time” and “expansion of school choice and charter schools,” among others, the Greater Oklahoma City Chamber has made it clear that its expectations for the Department of Education are nothing short of revolutionary.
I think it is safe to say that Barresi won her election because she was thinking outside the box. Winning in the face of baseless accusations and innuendo relating to her policy positions, Barresi secured what may be the truest mandate of this election; and as such, the expectations by her supporters will be great.
No candidate in Oklahoma during the 2010 campaign cycle represented change as acutely as Barresi; therefore no other candidate has as many expectations cast upon them following election. My only fear for Barresi is that her supporters, not her detractors, could be her undoing if they don’t see significant change early. And she’ll need their continued support in the face of the already initiated opposition, which has recently questioned Barresi’s choice for chief of staff.
Barresi will have no option but to hit the ground running. With more than 500 school districts in the state looking to her department for guidance and answers, she will have an immediate impact on her first day in office. However, she won’t be able to take a low-performing system and turn it into a nationwide example overnight. And with Democrats trying to make hay over her initial hiring decisions, Barresi’s first meeting of the state Board of Education may be spent trying to get her hires approved, instead of implementing reform.
The business community must continue to support Barresi early on, regardless of outcomes, because cooperation from the public education establishment will likely be slow. And with a principle platform issue of more local control for districts, the buy-in for change from superintendents and local school boards will be key to her success.
Barresi is Oklahoma’s first legitimate opportunity at addressing the abysmal performance of our public schools. The pressure on her to reverse the course will be immense, but like every other elected official, she asked for it. And if she can pull it off, we may very well be referring to a dentist from Oklahoma City as our most significant winner of the 2010 election.
Smith is an attorney living in Oklahoma City.