Superintendent debate
Oklahoma Superintendent of Public Instruction Joy Hofmeister, center, debated GOP challenger Linda Murphy, second from left, Friday, Aug. 24, 2018, at City Presbyterian Church in Oklahoma City. (Ben White)

Matters got heated between two state superintendent candidates during a Republican runoff-primary debate Friday. Candidates clashed over testing standards, State Question 801 and last legislative session’s teacher pay raise package.

Furthering tensions early in the superintendent debate, Linda Murphy also called into question incumbent Joy Hofmeister‘s attendance at Republican campaign events.

“I’m a Republican, I’m in a Republican runoff,” Murphy said. “I’ve been to Republican events all over the state, about 65 of them. My opponent has been to maybe 3 that I’m aware of.”

Hofmeister countered that her visits to schools are more important.

“The decisions I make are not going to be partisan,” Hofmeister said. “I haven’t crossed the state and visited party, county gatherings. I have had to make a choice: political events or being in classrooms.”

Disagreement on 1010xx, testing standards and State Question 801

In the midst of increased statewide attention to public education, Hofmeister expressed optimism about state education going forward, saying, “I pray that we have hit rock bottom.”

“In order to make certain that we are meeting the needs of kids, we first have to address the fact that people need to want to go into education,” Hofmeister said.

During its 2018 session, the Oklahoma Legislature passed revenue-raising measures to fund pay increases for teachers and support staff. Asked about the revenue bill, Hofmeister said she found it to be “100 percent” necessary.

Murphy, however, cast doubt on the state’s need for tax increases to fund teacher pay. She also criticized the Oklahoma Education Association for what she called a lack of leadership during the April teacher walkout.

“What I didn’t like was the OEA union held the mic for nine days, and at the end of that time, not being able to tell the press a specific goal, I think that was a big problem,” Murphy said. “The OEA teachers’ union does not represent all the teachers in the state, but they held the mic for nine days. That’s not right.”

Hofmeister: Murphy testing comments ‘not accurate’

Superintendent debate
Oklahoma Superintendent of Public Instruction Joy Hofmeister, right, and GOP challenger Linda Murphy, left, receive applause from the audience at the start of a debate Friday, Aug. 24, 2018, at City Presbyterian Church in Oklahoma City. (Ben White)

The two GOP candidates also clashed over testing standards in Oklahoma. Murphy advocated for a movement away from federal standards, saying they, “align with common core.”

“We have nationalized testing that is benchmarked with NAEP, the National Assessment of Education Progress, which comes directly from the Department of Education,” Murphy said. “And I say we need to have our own testing, our own standards and testing, and we need to have control of that. Local control is the answer.”

Hofmeister described Murphy’s statement as “not accurate.”

“Common core was repealed, and we wrote new academic standards, not at 23rd and Lincoln, but with Oklahoma teachers and with Oklahoma stakeholders,” Hofmeister said. “The tests we give are aligned to our academic standards, and that is a fact.”

Murphy pushed back, citing a Brookings Institute white paper that cautioned against NAEP testing.

Throughout the debate, Murphy advocated for increased local control for public education.

“The teachers have to be free to teach,” Murphy said. “Right now on a survey, they were showing that 64 to 75 percent of (one-time teachers) would return to the classroom if we get the regulations and control off of them so they can make decisions.”

Differing takes on State Question 801

Voters will decide State Question 801 on the November ballot. SQ 801 would amend the state’s constitution to allow school district to issue bonds — paid back by property taxes — for operational expenses such as teacher pay and other classroom needs.

“I can’t support it,” Hofmeister said about SQ 801. “What I’m concerned about is that it is simply taking money out of the right pocket and putting it in the left. It is not new money.”

Murphy, however, offered support.

“Yes, I think overall it would be an improvement,” Murphy said before eventually walking back her statement slightly. “I’m not fully decided. I lean towards local control, yes, but I do see the downsides of it.”

Oklahoma has more than 500 school districts, and school consolidation is a sensitive issues for many Oklahomans. Candidates were asked to share their views on the matter.

“I think we have too many school districts,” Hofmeister said. “But it’s going to take the Legislature if we were to do anything around the conversation of consolidation.”

Murphy tried to turn the question into another chance to address state testing, saying classroom standards do not align with the tests students take.

“When the academic standards are replaced and the testing truly aligns, then we can truly measure where we are with student performance,” Murphy said. “As far as consolidating, then we can see what schools need to be consolidated, that’s the point.”

Candidates agree on some issues

While there were apparent differences between Hofmeister and Murphy’s views, both answered “No” on a question about whether the Oklahoma Secondary Schools Activities Association should be placed under State Department of Education’s control.

“It’s a local membership organization, and that’s where it belongs,” Hofmeister said. “We do not need to grow government.”

Neither candidate supported school voucher programs.

“Putting public money into private schools and home schools brings regulation. If you’re going to give government money, you have to regulate it to some degree,” Murphy said. “It does take more money out of the public school system. I think there are other ways to help parents in our state.”

Hofmeister also opposed vouchers.

“In Oklahoma we already have a very broad school choice policy,” Hofmeister said. “I am state superintendent of public instruction. That is my top priority. That’s where 95 percent of school children reside. But make no mistake, we have to give families options.”

A full YouTube video of the debate can be found here, and a Facebook live video of the GOP superintendent debate can be viewed below. The YouTube video has clearer audio quality at some points.

Runoff-primary on Tuesday

Republican voters will decide between Hofmeister and Murphy in Aug. 28’s runoff-primary election. The winner will face Democrat John Cox and independent Larry Huff in November.

(Update: This story was updated at 1:15 p.m. Monday, Aug. 27, to include a link to the YouTube video of the GOP superintendent runoff debate.)