Asked to name the three most important issues now facing the Oklahoma City Public School district, school board candidate Laura Massenat gave a succinct and direct answer: “parental expectations/involvement; teaching to the tests/lowest pass standard; and accountability and transparency.”
Although turnout and voters participation in school board races is notoriously low, the race in District 4 – MidTown and near Southside – is attracting attention due to views of the three candidates on a wide range of education policy questions.
Recently, Oklahoma Superintendent of Public Instruction Janet Barresi has requested from the federal government a state waiver from No Child Left Behind requirements. The City Sentinel asked Massenat if she agreed, disagreed, or had a mixed response to Barresi’s decision.
Massenat, the owner of Elementals Coffee in downtown Oklahoma City, responded, “I agree with the requested waiver. The goal of education in Oklahoma is to prepare each student for college or career. No Child Left Behind set us on a path towards goals that are unattainable. The new Core Curriculum Standards still require equally rigorous coursework, but will be judged, in part, on students’ progress and not entirely on students’ scores. I support the district’s move to Core Knowledge in the elementary schools and away from teaching skills in isolation to prepare for testing.”
The amount of legal fees paid by public school districts is not information readily available for public inspection through the Oklahoma Department of Education or at the district level. Asked if that is information voters and citizens should be able to access, Massenat replied, “Absolutely.”
MAPS for Kids, the historic, voter-approved infusion of hundreds of millions of dollars in tax revenues to finance infrastructure improvements, is now in its final stages. Asked to discuss what she believes the next major local reform effort should be, Massenat reflected, “The district has put many programs in place and finalized its Strategic Plan. Just assuring the implementation of the current programs and providing for accountability requires a Herculean effort – which we must absolutely put forth.
“Right now, we need to stop adding to the top-down baggage, and begin dealing with each school individually. Each school can best identify its own needs; each school knows what barriers keep parents from being involved. Each school should become the center of its neighborhood, a true community hub.
“In a nutshell: keep and implement previously selected programs, increase site-based individualization.”
The City Sentinel invited Massenat, as was the case with both the other candidates, to give her views on charter schools, and broader forms of parental or student choice, including the special needs scholarships enacted in 2010.
She explained her perspective this way: “I am a great supporter of charter schools, magnets, enterprise, and specialty – all schools that are currently operating with success in the district. Each student in the district deserves to be served and I would support scholarships that would provide services that the district cannot provide.
“I would like to see a District-Private charter, similar to the downtown model, be put in place without delay in a school that is failing under its current operation. I will support innovation and new models to be tried in individual schools – I do not believe we should wait for the magic wand that will make all schools in the district rise at the same time.”
Suggestions have been made to move school board elections from February, when participation is always low, to November in order to allow for broader participation and a more representative outcome.
In a recent collection of policy suggestions, Lt. Gov. Todd Lamb endorsed the idea.
Inivited to give her own response, Massenat said, “A November election would likely lead to broader, but less informed, participation. The turnout in February is small, but those who care enough to vote tend to be well informed.
“I am concerned that adding the elections to the November ballot would make the race more focused on putting money in for name recognition, and the real issues and candidates might be lost in the sea of ballot choices. The resulting outcome may be less representative.”
Massenat became known in local activist circles for her leadership of a drive to improve nutrition and healthiness for school lunch programs. The City Sentinel asked her to explain what has happened.
She said, “Since Eat Wise OKC began a dialogue with the district to request changes to the nutrition program, many improvements have been made. If you venture into an elementary cafeteria in the Oklahoma City Public Schools, you should find that students are offered fresh fruit at both breakfast and lunch, that cookies and chips are no longer being sold to accompany their free/reduced price meals, that vanilla and strawberry milks have disappeared, and that all students enjoy a fresh fruit or vegetable snack every day. However, the daily offerings are still lacking.
She continued, “At the base of the menu is the belief that children will only eat fast food and each day of the week has its corresponding menu item- pizza, hot dog, hamburger, Mexi-something, and shaped chicken products. Intended or not, children are learning about food in the school cafeteria and they are learning to eat fast food every day with sugary milk.”
The election is scheduled for Tuesday, February 14. If no candidate receives an outright majority, a runoff in the non-partisan race will be held on April 10.