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Education Reformer Star of the Week: Clark Jolley

• Neil Ruddock

Del City High School

Del City High School

Ordinary.  When one thinks of provocative words in the English language, this aggressively nondescript term is scarce to be found.

Ordinary is a term easily associated with Oklahoma, though.  Merle Haggard immortalized the link with his anthem Okie from Muskogee.  The state ranks 28th in population and 20th in geographic area—an area that happens to be in the middle of the country.  The state is majority white, but not overwhelmingly so.

Ordinary also describes the crux of the challenges within K-12 education policy.  Everyone acknowledges that a stable home life provides better odds of succeeding in school, irrespective of the policy environment.  Polls consistently show that Americans think everyone else’s school system needs to improve, but their own schools are ok.

The problem is that when one looks at the NAEP test score data for Oklahoma, ordinary is not the reality.  Oklahoma’s numbers show a lot of red (as in below average) relative to the rest of the country, and not much (above average) green.  Sadly, the colors on Oklahoma’s NAEP charts are pretty similar to the colors one sees in an airplane flying over the Sooner State.

Enter State Senator Clark Jolley.  The Oklahoma City attorney studied music education and political science as an undergraduate at Oklahoma Baptist University.   He chairs the Senate Appropriations Committee, serves as Assistant Majority Floor Leader, and was a lead author of legislation ensuring students read proficiently by the end of third grade and legislation providing A-F letter grades to schools.

The question is why, as a successful attorney and young legislator rising through the ranks, this graduate of Del City High School would choose to bear the torch of an education policy agenda that disturbs a comfortable, ordinary existence carved out by members of the K-12 education establishment.

Senator Jolley’s answer befits someone entrusted with the state’s purse strings: numbers.  The NAEP data referenced above, and Oklahoma’s lackluster performance revealed by it, grabbed his attention and made him determined that his state’s educators and children were capable of doing better.

In his first legislative session, the good Senator sponsored a bill requiring Oklahoma to align the cut scores on its state test with the rigor of NAEP.  The legislation went nowhere, and Jolley was accused of wanting his state’s scores to go down…to which he promptly responded “No, I don’t want our scores to go down.  I want our scores to be accurate.”  (One can dream about what a few Clark Jolleys might have done for the mortgage banking industry a few years back).

When asked how his efforts to reform education have been received by educators, he says that many teachers in his community are the can-do, take-on-any-challenge types who embrace his work.  These individuals would appreciate more freedom in the classroom, and they support the state’s move towards Common Core standards, which provide more flexibility to use their teaching skills.

Other teachers he meets are more pessimistic about the need for reform.  Senator Jolley is ok with this.  He looks at Oklahoma’s lagging performance relative to the United States, and the United States’ lagging performance relative to other countries, and concludes that numbers do not lie.  He not only authored but also made improvements to the state’s 3rd grade reading and A-F laws, continues to be a strong advocate of parent choice, and is not afraid to do dig into the weeds of policymaking.

The age of YouTube and Twitter has made it easier for the public to focus on the outspoken, sensationalist legislators.  Clark Jolley remains the classic workhorse.  Look at the numbers.  Use common sense in discerning what they mean.  Proceed accordingly.  Some see that as ordinary.  This author sees it as imperative.  Here’s to living right, and being free.

About the author

Neil Ruddock

Neil serves as a Regional Advocacy Director at the Foundation for Excellence in Education. He came to the Foundation after 3½ years with the Indiana Department of Education, first as legislative liaison and policy advisor and most recently as director of the Hoosier state’s new school voucher program. Neil has also served as a policy analyst for Educational Testing Service, and began his career on the staff of then-U.S. Senator George Voinovich. A native Ohioan, Neil is a proud graduate of Notre Dame and holds a Masters degree from Johns Hopkins. He is also a long-suffering Cleveland Browns fan. Neil serves as the Regional Advocacy Director for the Central region and his portfolio of states includes: Illinois, Indiana, Iowa, Kansas, Michigan, Minnesota, Missouri, Nebraska, North Dakota, Ohio, Oklahoma, South Dakota and Wisconsin. Contact Neil at