Walking out of the Oliver Hodge Building across the street from the Oklahoma State Capitol, a gray-haired teacher remarked on how excited she was to have a new state superintendent.
“It’s a new day,” she said while darting to her car to escape the sub-freezing temperatures.
Joy Hofmeister, the newly sworn-in state superintendent of public instruction, was holding a reception inside her new office on her first day. Teachers, school administrators and politicians crowded inside to greet the state’s highest-ranking school official, who begins her tenure with high expectations and the knowledge that the honeymoon period could be short-lived if she can’t deliver on the lofty objectives she campaigned on.
“This is a new day for Oklahoma schools and the state department of education,” Hofmeister told hundreds of superintendents and school administrators at the annual Cooperative Council for Oklahoma School Administration legislative conference last week.
Hofmeister’s first significant address as state superintendent was met with applause and visible signs of support from school officials. She demonstrated a different tone from Gov. Mary Fallin’s own address to the same crowd just minutes earlier.
“It’s going to be a tough budget year,” Fallin told educators. “It is what it is.”
While Fallin acknowledged that more funding is needed for Oklahoma schools, including increases in teacher pay, she defended the government’s inability to make more progress.
Hofmeister, still speaking like a government outsider just two days into her term, spoke as a representative for educators, saying she was eager to advocate for teachers and students during the upcoming legislative session.
“I think my role is to be an advocate [for schools] and to present to those [state] leaders and key decision-makers what is needed,” Hofmeister told Oklahoma Gazette. “I think I play a significant role in presenting the case that needs to be made for what our schools must have.”
Hofmeister said she expects to make progress this year on reducing the number of end-of-the-year tests for secondary students.
“I would hope that we see reduced testing and more time provided for the classroom teacher for instruction,” Hofmeister said. “I also believe we will have a remedy for the end-of-the-year exams to be reduced from seven to one and that one would be more of an ACT model.”
Hofmeister also said she was eager to improve teacher morale, which includes increased pay and other resources.
“We will make significant morale changes to address our teacher shortage,” Hofmeister said. “Our teachers are exiting to other states and into other industries for many reasons, and we can’t look to one reason or one solution to try to solve a very complex problem. A year from now, we should have a fully developed plan that is in place to address those immediate needs.”
Educators at last week’s conference said they felt a lack of respect from the state Department of Education in recent years, which became a major theme both at last year’s teacher rally at the Capitol and in the defeat of Janet Barresi in last year’s superintendent election.
Hofmeister comes into office with plenty of challenges, and funding is the biggest. Oklahoma’s reduction of K-12 funding by 22 percent since 2008 represents the largest cut in the nation, according to the Center for Budget and Policy Priorities. Legislators were told that this year’s budget process doesn’t offer much hope for reversing that. As much as $20 million might be withheld from public schools this year due to a miscalculation of state aid since 1992. Also, the Legislature will have roughly $300 million less to spend this year than last, according to early estimates.
On top of that, falling oil prices have created even more unknowns about the state’s budget health, and they risk putting the state in tough economic times.
“Even in good times, we are not meeting our obligation to fund schools, public safety, healthcare and other core services at appropriate levels,” David Blatt, director of the Oklahoma Policy Institute, wrote in a recent column.
Even with the hand Hofmeister was dealt, she continues to proclaim lofty goals that begin with creating a Department of Education that feels more open to educators and administrators.
“We need to dismantle the walls that have perpetuated an us-versus-them mentality over the past couple of years,” Hofmeister said. “People are desperate to dispense with the toxic atmosphere. Our school leaders deserve a state department of education that provides clear, consistent and accurate information.”
Educators demanded change last year, and they followed through on those demands at the ballot box. Hofmeister brings an enthusiasm to the office that many educators across the state also have embraced.
But the challenge to drastically improve the state’s educational standards start right away for the new state superintendent, and time will tell how long that new enthusiasm will last.
Print headline: Joyful noise, The state’s new school superintendent receives
a warm welcome as she faces tough challenges.