Garrett’s goodbye: Superintendent delivers Tulsa speech
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Published: 22-Jul-2010

CapitolBeatOK Staff Report

Published: 22-Jul-2010

Borrowing Charles Dickens’ famous dichotomic line to open her 2010 State of Education address today in Tulsa, State Superintendent Sandy Garrett remarked “it is the best of times, it is the worst of times” to the more than 2,500 Oklahoma school leaders in attendance.

The address was Garrett’s 20th in office as Oklahoma’s elected State Superintendent of Public Instruction and her final as she is not seeking reelection. The speech, the opening session of the state Department of Education’s 20th annual “Leadership” conference, detailed challenges facing state schools today, education reform during the last 20 years, and the stark differences of schools in 1990 and 2010.

“It’s vital that one reflects on the past in order to more perfectly focus on the future,” Garrett said, adding that while Dickens phrase was from a “Tale of Two Cities,” the crux of her speech was about a “a tale of two times.”

She lauded school leaders, her staff and the four governors with which she has worked – Henry Bellmon, David Walters, Frank Keating and Brad Henry – for their partnership in school reform. Of her mentor, the late Republican Gov. Bellmon, she gave special praise for using his full political weight to pass House Bill 1017 in 1990. Of him, she said, “he will be ever remembered as a great statesman who focused not on the next election but on the next generation.”

Since 1017 passed, she noted, Oklahoma has implemented its first core curriculum and aligned state tests, increased graduation requirements and school accreditation standards, developed a minimum salary schedule for teachers, passed compulsory kindergarten, provided voluntary prekindergarten for all, and embraced numerous other progressive reforms, including character education, alternative education programs, instructional technology and the nation’s first statewide school safety hotline.

“During this time, without question, we have come a long way, and all the while, the needs of Oklahoma children have become more complex and more difficult,” Garrett said.

In 1990, Oklahoma’s student poverty rate was 35 percent, overwhelmingly Caucasian and schools were educating 577,000 students. In 2010, schools served about 650,000 students with a poverty rate of 60 percent. Caucasian students now have a slight majority in the Oklahoma student population and the numbers of students who are homeless, speak English as a second language and/or are in foster care/state custody are astonishing. Yet Garrett said disturbing trends in student demographics shouldn’t be excuses for schools; they are simply the reality and the reason why schools are fundamental to any future progress for Oklahoma.

In regard to funding, Garrett said that even with federal stimulus and state Rainy Day funding included, schools were cut nearly $200 million for the coming school year. This, she said, is “devastating.”

“We realize that in our lifetime that Oklahoma’s economy has never been worse and that everyone must sacrifice. Yet it is especially tough at a time the school enrollment increased 10,000 students just last year and the number of those qualifying for free- and reduced-priced

lunches … reached an all-time high of 60 percent,” she said, adding those percentages are nearing 90 percent for Oklahoma City and Tulsa public schools.

Sharing a video prepared by a Tulsa World investigative team on two-thirds of students in state foster care failing to earn high school diplomas or GEDs, Garrett told the audience that this problem deserved their compassion and commitment. This is a particularly grave problem given that Oklahoma ranks No. 1 in the number and rate of children in foster care, she said.

“This is not a DHS problem; it is an Oklahoma problem,” she said, noting that many groups reach out to foster children but that schools must reach out, too. “Oklahoma schools must serve each and every boy and girl cared for or neglected, hopeful or homeless, making straight As or ‘records not yet received.’ … If all school leaders make it a priority, we could make a difference!”

Garrett ended by indicating that she was ready to pass the baton in January when she leaves office to the next state superintendent.

While social ills and poverty are clearly mounting amid school revenues declining at a rate in sharp contrast to enrollment, she expressed optimism that school leaders and citizens could make a difference.

“You must persevere in protecting the cornerstone of American democracy, public schools,” she said. “Only by providing every child with a world-class education, can we face new challenges and pursue new innovations that America needs.”

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