The education advocacy that fueled the teacher walkout also led to a surge of candidates filing for office, including a few surprises in the race for state superintendent.
Joy Hofmeister, state superintendent of instruction, drew four opponents.
Hofmeister, 53, will face two Republican challengers in the June primary: Linda Murphy, of Edmond, and Will Farrell, of Tulsa. Murphy, 66, is a public policy consultant who twice ran against Sandy Garrett for state superintendent. Farrell, 32, is a student at Oklahoma State University and a legal assistant at a Tulsa law firm.
Also running for state superintendent are Democrat John Cox and independent Larry Huff. Cox, 54, is the superintendent of Peggs Public School, and Huff, 76, is a retired educator.
Cox lost the general election to Hofmeister in 2014 by 11 percentage points and announced in January he was running again. So while Cox’s candidacy was expected, the others were a bit of a surprise, said James Davenport, a political science professor at Rose State College.
He said he expects the Republican primary will be a “run from the right”, with challengers saying Hofmeister didn’t adequately push for a teacher raise proposal that was not funded by tax increases.
Hofmeister has advantages going into the race. She is a Republican incumbent and is popular with teachers and school leaders, Davenport said.
“People should be a little cautious in their expectations,” Davenport said. “It’s really hard to beat incumbents. Institutionally, structurally, Democrats are still at somewhat of a disadvantage in running right now, even though there’s broad agreement the education issue deserves attention and resolution.”
Here’s a brief background on each of the five candidates.
John Cox, Democrat, Peggs
Cox said he’s running for superintendent now for the same reason he ran in 2014: He is opposed to policies being implemented by the current administration, namely the new standardized test cut scores and the continued use of A-F grades for schools.
Cox has been an educator and superintendent for more than three decades; he earns $136,471 as superintendent of Peggs Public Schools, including benefits. The district of about 230 students closed April 2, the first day of the recent teacher walkout, but remained open the rest of the time. Some community members criticized the decision. Cox said Peggs stayed open because the Oklahoma Department of Education randomly picked the district for test monitoring, and the schedule was set up in advance.
However, he supported the movement. “I was up there almost every day, and working behind the scenes to get something resolved,” Cox said.
Will Farrell, Republican, Tulsa
Farrell is the youngest of the candidates and is an undergraduate student at Oklahoma State University studying political science. He said he’s running for state superintendent because he sees that change is needed.
Farrell is from New York but moved to Tulsa with his family in high school, where he attended Cascia Hall, a private Catholic school. He said rather than watch schools scramble over funding, he’d like to push Oklahoma to a top 10 state for education.
“We just really can’t sit back as a face in the crowd and watch Oklahoma’s children suffer,” he said. “It’s not just students, teachers and parent. It’s the community.”
Joy Hofmeister, Republican, Tulsa
Hofmeister last year overcame what was perhaps her largest hurdle in running for re-election: criminal charges related to her 2014 campaign. The charges, of conspiracy to circumvent campaign finance laws, were dismissed in August.
Since taking the lead at the Education Department four years ago, she has led efforts to revamp the state’s school rating system, outline a new plan for education under the federal Every Student Succeeds Act, and reduce student testing through the elimination of end-of-instruction exams for high school students. But academic achievement has not improved during her tenure, and new data released last week showed a significant decline in reading scores between 2015 and 2017.
As state superintendent, she earns $124,373. Her campaign committee reported a balance of just over $44,000 at the end of 2017; first quarter reports for 2018 are due Monday. Hofmeister is also a former teacher, and previously operated Kumon Math and Reading Center of Tulsa.
Larry Huff, independent, Oklahoma City
Watching his daughter, a classroom teacher, advocate for school funding at the State Capitol prompted Huff to run for superintendent. He said he made the decision on Friday morning, the final day to file. Huff began his career as a teacher and has also worked for the state Education Department, including as the first director of gifted and talented education. He said retired as director of the Oklahoma North Central Accreditation Association.
“I have lived through empty Legislature promises since 1963,” Huff said. “It is time for Oklahoma students to succeed because of the system rather than in spite of the system.”
Linda Murphy, Republican, Edmond
Murphy, who is also a former classroom teacher, said what she saw in the recent teacher walkout was a lack of leadership from the state superintendent’s office. She disagrees with Education Department’s move to align Oklahoma’s academic standards with those of the National Assessment of Educational Progress because those standards are Common Core, a federal initiative she has publicly railed against.
Murphy is a founding partner of Guidance and Policy Solutions, a public policy consulting group. She taught in Oklahoma classrooms until 2006 and served as secretary of education under then-governor Frank Keating. She made unsuccessful bids for state superintendent in 1994 and 1998.
“Education matters to everybody. It’s an issue I have worked on for a long, long time,” Murphy said. “It’s time for someone else to lead.”