Education Reform Failure

Image of Picasso work

I can’t recall a time in Oklahoma when the politics of education was such a mess.

Not all of it is the direct fault of state politicians, which obviously include Gov. Mary Fallin and outgoing, controversial Schools Superintendent Janet Barresi, but they are the main factor in the problem. The other factor is the nationwide movement pushing high-stakes testing, which is driven by misguided conservative dogma.

What all this means is that students are getting used as pawns by politicians extoling unproven educational theories based on conservative ideology not best classroom practices. Here’s how that conservative ideology works: Starve schools of taxpayer funding, implement high-stakes testing to show failure, make the claim that privatization and the commodification of the public school system will solve the problem.

But is this all starting to unravel for the so-called “reformers” of education? Two new developments show just how messy things have gotten in Oklahoma educational politics and that this might well be the case.

(1) The federal Education Department is taking away the state’s waiver for its No Child Left Behind program because the legislature and Fallin repealed Common Core standards this year without replacing them with new standards. The stated aim of the repeal was to prevent federal intrusion into Oklahoma’s educational system. Yet the repeal itself has brought that about far more directly than had the standards remained in place. Poetic justice or just plain dumb?

(2) Schools Superintendent Janet Barresi just announced that fifth and eighth grade writing scores will not be used this year to determine the draconian A-F school report cards because of problems with the test administered by the private vendor CTB-McGraw Hill. This is the second year in a row there were what have been called “disruptions” in the company’s online testing system, which has prompted an investigation by Attorney General Scott Pruitt to determine financial accountability.

The two events might seem unrelated, but a closer look reveals this main connection: Conservative school reformers, whether rejecting federal intrusion in schools or pushing for high-stakes testing by private companies, have failed to improve schools and only create quagmires and muddles. Their policies and procedures don’t work.

It’s just too bad we have to continue to play it all out in Oklahoma.

Seismic Stalemate

Image of oil gusher

Recent stories on dissecting the dramatic surge in earthquakes here and its possible connection to oil and gas drilling activities are probably the most thorough local look at the issue so far.

The stories were primarily written by Adam Wilmoth, the energy editor of The Oklahoman, which operates the site. In his main report, Wilmoth presents the analysis of experts from academia and the oil and gas industry and outlines the history of earthquakes here. The accompanying graphics are helpful as well.

Wilmoth puts the earthquake surge in this perspective:

The number of earthquakes measuring magnitude 3.0 or greater has jumped from an average of less than five a year to about 40 a year for the past five years and more than 200 so far in 2014, according to the Oklahoma Geological Survey.

Here’s the anchor article. It’s worth reading if you’ve ever experienced an earthquake here and then were left wondering if the next one would literally bring the house down.

I do believe, however, the main story relies too heavily on the claims of people who work in the oil and gas industry. Certainly, executives at oil and gas companies here have a vested financial interest in arguing the recent surge in seismic activity is a natural phenomenon. The story never really directly points out that conflict of interest in blunt enough terms for me.

Oklahoma’s surge in earthquakes, according to scientists outside of the oil and gas industry, is at least partially due to water disposal wells used in the hydraulic fracturing or fracking process. In the fracking process, wastewater is eventually injected by high pressure into underground rock formations. Scientists believe it’s that process that triggers earthquakes along the state’s fault lines. Although disposal wells have long been used in the oil and gas industry, they have grown in number because of the recent boom in fracking in the state. There are currently 12,000 injection wells in Oklahoma, according to one of the recent articles.

I also believe an editorial in The Oklahoman/, which followed Wilmoth’s reports, completely distorted the issue. The editorial makes the big italicized point, “We have shaken this way before. The point seems to be this: Don’t blame the oil and gas industry for earthquakes in Oklahoma. This went on in the 1950s, too.

Yet one local scientist, Austin Holland, who works for the Oklahoma Geological Survey clearly claims in an earlier article on

There are number of times in the historic past before we had seismic monitoring that we had seismicity clusters, but none of these upticks in seismic activity even come close to comparing to what we see today.

I respect the work they are doing, but certainly feel that it is not the whole story.

“They” are people like Glen Brown, who works as a vice president for geology at local energy company Continental Resources. Brown’s claim is that the recent surge in earthquakes here was similar to a surge in the 1950s, which included a 5.5-magnitude quake in El Reno.

The main conundrum is that available scientific techniques might not be able to ever conclusively show beyond a shadow of a doubt that disposal wells are responsible for the earthquake surge. This is compounded by the fact that the oil and gas industry has no compelling reason to accept any liability for the increase in seismic activity.

It’s a seismic stalemate that could lead to property damage and even human casualties if a large earthquake hits the state.

Paula Sophia For HD 88; Connie Johnson For U.S. Senate; Freda Deskin For Schools Superintendent

Paula Sophia

I have three endorsements for Tuesday’s Democratic runoff election.

First, runoff elections are notorious for their lack of voter participation. It’s vitally important for Democrats to get out the vote in this particular runoff election if only to show they are still viable as a political force in conservative, Republican-dominated Oklahoma.

It should only take a few minutes to vote given the paucity of races. The voter lines shouldn’t be that long even with a robust turnout since the ballot will be short.

The clear choice in the Oklahoma House Representative District 88 race is retired police officer and accomplished writer Paula Sophia, pictured above. The winner in this race will win the overall election because no Republican or Independent filed for the seat. This is important to realize. HD 88 voters are deciding the race tomorrow, not in the general election against a Republican.

Sophia faces Jason Dunnington, a former pastor and a candidate who extols his right-wing religious past as a reason you should vote for him. Don’t we have enough right-wing religious folks at the state Capitol? People I know who have met Dunnington on the campaign trail claim he comes off as charming and impressive, but his past just doesn’t fit with the liberal spirit and funkiness of HD 88, which includes the Paseo and Plaza districts. Dunnington is the candidate that most Republicans, undoubtedly, want to win tomorrow. Remember: The race will be decided tomorrow.

Let’s be clear. A vote for Dunnington tomorrow is a vote sanctioning right-wing religious and conservative ideology. A vote for Sophia is a vote for progressive values, such as embracing diversity and equality.

Sophia is a perfect fit for HD 88. Here’s my earlier endorsement for her in which I argued:

This is what Sophia . . . will bring to the job: Intelligence, vast historical knowledge of Oklahoma City because of her award-winning police work in a 22-year career and the ability to serve the varied interests of her constituents in a district considered one of the most liberal in the state.

As a prose writer and poet, often seen wearing a signature beret, she will also bring style and difference to a staid legislature now dominated by ultra conservatives intent on denying people equal rights and underfunding education at all levels.

As someone who struggled with gender conflict as she eventually transitioned from a man to a woman, Sophia will bring empathy and understanding to those constituents in need of help for a variety of reasons or those constituents who don’t feel part of the conservative Oklahoma status quo or who define or want to define themselves outside of the rigid, cultural codes of heteronormativity.

Again, here’s my full endorsement. HD 88 voters also have a chance to make history if they elect Sophia. She would become the first openly transgendered candidate to win office in a state legislature in the nation. That would send a huge message to the world that there are, indeed, Oklahomans who embrace diversity and equality.

Someone in HD 88 casually mentioned to me a couple of weeks ago that they were afraid Sophia could get beat by a Republican in the general election.

Let me repeat: The vote tomorrow determines the winner of the seat because no Republicans filed to run for the position.

Image of Constance Johnson

My next endorsement is for state Sen. Connie Johnson, pictured right, who faces what everyone in the media here calls a “perennial candidate” in the race to replace the retiring U.S. Sen. Tom Coburn. That perennial candidate is 79 years old and apparently makes it a hobby to run for various state offices to make some point that’s difficult to discern. He also apparently does very little actual campaigning. Johnson received the most votes in the primary election, but she didn’t garner enough votes to get beyond the 50 percent threshold needed to prevent a runoff.

I wrote about the 62-year-old Johnson and her career here. In that post, I argued:

. . . Johnson, on the other hand, is an accomplished state senator with bona fide progressive credentials. She’s running a credible and viable campaign with volunteers and donors. She may face an uphill battle against the better-funded Lankford in the general election, but this runoff election is simply a waste of Democrats’ time and money. They need to come out in big numbers Aug. 26 to support Johnson, and that means party workers at all levels throughout the state need to work to get out the vote for her.

I do expect Johnson to win this election and face U.S. Rep. Lankford in the general election for Coburn’s seat, but a big turnout for Johnson could energize Democrats here.

I also wrote this about her:

Johnson is well known in the Oklahoma City area as an advocate for corrections reform, reproductive rights for women and wider medical access. While some Democrats have either lost their voice during the recent conservative wave in Oklahoma or given up the political scene entirely, Johnson has been an unwavering fighter for economic equality and the rights of women and minorities.

In the end, it’s simply a no-brainer. Johnson has the political and work experience that makes her by far the best Democratic candidate in this race. There’s simply no question about it. Again, here’s my full endorsement.

I also support Freda Deskin for state Schools Superintendent in the Democratic runoff against John Cox. Deskin has received the endorsement of Victor Hutchison, a founding member of Oklahomans for Excellence in Science Education (OESE) and an emeritus zoology professor at the University of Oklahoma. The Tulsa World has also endorsed Deskin.

Hutchison is concerned that Cox, at a recent meeting, didn’t take a stance against those who oppose the teaching of evolution in schools. In a recent email to OESE supporters, Hutchison personally endorsed Deskin, arguing:

Deskin is clearly the best candidate, with a long and wide-ranging experience in education at all levels. At the meeting in Norman Cox’s answer to a question about teaching evolution, his first response was “I believe in God.” In follow up statements he made it clear that evolution in public schools was not one of his concerns; he did this by quickly changing to other topics. He was not well-received by that audience and many there thought he was the worst of the four candidates who appeared on different dates.

The World argued:

Deskin understands public schools, and we believe she would be the kind of collegial leader that Oklahoma education needs to follow Barresi.

Her platform is not ideal, but it is closer to the reform agenda the state needs than her opponent.

I especially think voters should note Hutchison’s concerns.

Should it be Al McAffrey or Tom Guild for the U.S. Representative seat in Oklahoma’s 5th Congressional district runoff election on the Democratic side? It’s just too close to call for me. I have known and talked to both candidates through the years. Guild was a colleague of mine at the University of Central Oklahoma where we worked together on the UCO and state affiliates of the American Association of University Professors. McAffrey made history by becoming the first openly gay Oklahoma legislator, an event that is extremely important in the march to equality here. Each candidate would be a solid representative on the Democratic side in the race, which pundits have argued is a sure victory for Republicans in the general election.

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