TULSA, Okla. (AP) — Emails between state leaders about the new A-F school grading system show the politics and behind-the-scenes communications that went into the decision to move forward with a grade calculation method more than 300 superintendents say is flawed.
Nearly 2,000 pages of emails from Gov. Mary Fallin's office and the Oklahoma Department of Education were reviewed by the Tulsa World.
The emails show that State Superintendent Janet Barresi and her top aides were in constant contact with Fallin staffers, forwarding questions from certain board members and coordinating public reaction to a hastily formed coalition of school leaders that criticized the state's calculations.
In an effort to advance the school report card system, Fallin for a time supported a compromise calculation method.
On the morning that the state board of education first took up the issue of releasing Oklahoma's first-ever school report cards, Damon Gardenhire, Barresi's communications and policy director, lamented the superintendents' criticism in an email to Fallin's policy director.
"Just keep in mind that the local (superintendents) will keep doing this on every reform until choice is introduced into the system," he wrote to Katie Altshuler. "Until then, they will continue to play these kinds of games."
That day was also Gardenhire's last on the job for the state, as he had accepted a position with the Walton Family Foundation, which invests in organizations that support vouchers and charter schools.
"A big part of why I took the Walton gig was because I see real promise for bringing positive pressure to bear that will help cause a tipping point with enough (superintendents) that the ugly voices like Keith Ballard will begin to be small and puny," Gardenhire wrote in an email.
Ballard is superintendent of Tulsa Public Schools.
Hours later, the state board reacted to the superintendents' concerns by voting unanimously to delay the release of the grade cards.
For the previous 10 years, Oklahoma's public schools had been assessed using a numerical school accountability scoring system, called the Academic Performance Index.
Barresi had campaigned for office on the idea of replacing the API scores of 0-1,500 with letter grades, saying that report cards would be easier for parents and others to understand.
In 2011, legislation was passed to formalize the A-F school grading system and subsequently, the state board adopted rules for the law's implementation. But not until schools began reviewing the state's first drafts of grade calculations in early September did they speak out.
The primary concerns of the superintendents were a higher standard for achieving an "A'' than is used to grade students and the education department's method of calculating average student growth - which determines 20 percent of a school's grade.
Superintendents believed the formula was unfair, because rather than measure schools against an average of all students' achievement scores, state education officials used an average of only students who made gains on state tests.
On Oct. 4 more than 30 superintendents from throughout the state held a press conference in Oklahoma City to urge the state board or Legislature to halt the release of the school report cards, which was scheduled to occur the following week.
The next day State Sen. Clark Jolley, R-Edmond, one of the authors of the A-F legislation, sought assistance and feedback from education department officials with his response to a letter from one of his constituents, Edmond Superintendent David Goin.
Jolley also traded a series of emails with one of Fallin's cabinet members, State Secretary of Education Phyllis Hudecki.
Jolley told Hudecki that delaying the school report cards wasn't an option because the media could obtain them through an open records request and publish them anyway.
Numerous media outlets requested the grade cards. But the Oklahoma State Department of Education didn't respond to those requests for three weeks - until after the board ultimately gave the go-ahead for the original calculations.
"As much as we can fault Janet for some of the bumps in the road, on most of these, I frankly believe it is that they (superintendents) figured out they don't like their grades," Jolley wrote. "We need to stand by Janet ... They are just figuring out that the end result doesn't look like what they expected."
Hudecki told Jolley that she was "embarrassed it has gone badly, not just bumps in the road," particularly because the Oklahoma Business and Education Coalition were backers of the reform and the governor had arranged an earlier visit to Oklahoma by former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush, whose state pioneered the use of letter grades for schools.
"A large part of the problem is in the handling of people at every level. Alienating people is never a good long term strategy," she said. "The art of consensus building and compromise is either missing, or has been a hollow process ... The public surely must be losing confidence that the reform is soundly implemented, which will make grades less meaningful."
On the morning of Oct. 8, Gardenhire emailed Altshuler to report that Hudecki was lobbying for a delay, "targeting the weak links on the board."
He wrote, "That is just appalling to me, the governor's undersecretary undermining her own agenda?"
That day, the board went against the wishes of Barresi and voted unanimously to delay the release of the report cards at least until their next regular meeting on Oct. 25.
Barresi chairs the state board, while the six members are appointed by the governor with the approval of the state Senate. Records show that by that evening, Altshuler and the governor's chief of staff, Denise Northrup, stepped up their communications with certain members of the state board.
"This reform is very important to Governor Fallin and we want to make sure it is successful. We would be interested in hearing your thoughts about what you are looking for between now and Oct. 25," Altshuler wrote in an email addressed only to three board members who had been the most vocal at the Oct. 8 meeting - Joy Hofmeister of Tulsa, Brian Hayden of Enid and Lee Baxter of Lawton.
Written communications appear to pick back up on Oct. 20, just a few days before the board of education meeting set for Oct. 25. On Oct. 22, Northrup emailed the same three board of education members saying the governor supported adopting a compromise calculation at the next board meeting:
Barresi's chief of staff, Joel Robison, emailed State Sen. John Ford that the compromise "meets the superintendents' call to include all students" in the state average while meeting the education department's "concern about not giving credit for negative growth."
But the next day Robison told an employee preparing a PowerPoint presentation for the board meeting that things had changed and he needed to remove the so-called "compromise." The slides had previously shown how many schools would receive A's, B's, C's, D's or F's as originally calculated, as the superintendents' coalition had suggested, as well as in the "compromise" method.
Alex Weintz, the governor's spokesman, said he thinks the reason for the change was "pretty simple. We were exploring a compromise and sort of everyone decided at the same time, this isn't as good as the original plan. Gov. Fallin was always supportive of the original A-F proposal presented by the state department of education.
"Board members ultimately decided that the original proposal was better than the compromise. Would the governor have been OK with a compromise? Yes."
Hayden, the state board member from Enid, said the governor's office "wanted to understand what the three of us - what was our issue, why we wanted to delay. I remember even asking, 'What do you want us to do?' They said vote the way you feel you should vote. There wasn't any pressure."
The board eventually voted unanimously to approve the grade cards as originally calculated by education officials.
Meanwhile, member Bill Shdeed of Oklahoma City accused the superintendents of resisting reforms of any kind. And Baxter said he had difficulty sitting through the public comments offered at the meeting, saying he felt they were being attacked as "political pawns."
Barresi, who had previously stated that school leaders' concerns were really masking their resistance to public accountability, said she was relieved.
Baxter said he couldn't recall another occasion when staffers from the governor's office had involved themselves in an education matter to that degree but said he didn't feel pressured in any way.
Fallin's spokesman said the governor is still open to talks about how the A-F report card legislation can be improved, but no such discussion has been arranged.
"Generally, the governor's message to all of our superintendents whether or not they supported it is let's work together. Let's make this system work," said Weintz.
Hofmeister said she anticipates "continued refinement."
Edmond Public Schools received good school grades and yet Goin, the district's superintendent, has been one of the most outspoken critics.
For starters, Goin said the state is giving an unfair exemption to small schools that don't have as many students as larger schools. He said 38 of the 45 elementary schools statewide that received "A'' grades were exempted from the same judgment as larger schools simply because of their small enrollments.
"I've heard that Edmond shouldn't even be talking about this because it's an 'A' district," Goin said. "I simply want the report card system to be an accurate representation of the quality of teaching and learning that is taking place in our schools. If you look at the bloated 'B' category and anemic 'A' category, it says there are a lot of schools in our state that are just pretty good. There are more schools that are excellent that have not been acknowledged."
Ballard, the Tulsa superintendent, said the comments "reveals an agenda to divert dollars intended for public education to vouchers and for-profit vendors that should be very frightening to all Oklahomans.
"We believed we had the right to speak out on a public issue," Ballard said. "On the very day Damon Gardenhire wrote those comments, he approached me and said he was really looking forward to working with me in his new role with the Walton foundation. How disingenuous that was."
Barresi did not respond to requests for comment.