The following is a transcript of the CheckIn interview conducted by GovSight Vice President Miguel Pineda with Oklahoma House Representative Melissa Provenzano on the coronavirus response in her district — District 79 — as well as her background as an educator and the 99th anniversary of the Tulsa race massacre. The interview has been edited lightly for clarity.
Miguel Pineda: Representative Provenzano, thank you for joining CheckIn by GovSight today. I wanted to start today off with COVID-19: What steps have your district slash the state of Oklahoma done to prevent the spread of the disease?
Melissa Provenzano: Oklahoma is largely rural but we have some major metropolitan areas in Oklahoma City, Norman, Stillwater, Lawton, Tulsa — and the response looks very different depending on if you're urban or rural. And there were far fewer things that were put into place for rural areas, but I'll talk about Tulsa and urban centers.
We shut down for a number of weeks and were very limited and, you know, just followed the protocols with personal protective equipment, masking up, social distancing, only getting out if you absolutely have to. Here in Oklahoma, the response on test acquisition, from what I can tell, was very similar to the national issue that we had: So many people needed testing, couldn't get testing, and lots of confusion around access to the test versus the actual collection kit. We sort of failed when it came to, “okay, let's order tests. Oops, you forgot to order the collection kit.” We didn't know we needed a collection kit sort of thing at the state level.
But now we're rolling and we've opened largely back up. We're in phase three here in Tulsa of reopening, which means you can go get your hair done but you need to wear masks. You can go out to eat at a restaurant. Social distance is still recommended. Although it largely depends on individual preference as to whether or not you see masks in public. And certainly different areas of town, different spaces, you see more of a willingness to wear masks than others. And different times a day — usually I'll go to the grocery store during the day and there's lots of elderly folks there: Everybody's in a mask because they just can't take the risk. But then trend towards the evening, not so much. But lots of folks are being responsible, other folks finding it's a struggle.
Statewide, we pushed over 7,000 cases at the beginning of this week. We are now starting to see another uptick in cases, I think largely because of Memorial Day and because of the large gatherings in particular. Memorial Day and people at restaurants just really wanting to get out there.
Pineda: Well, I think that mirrors a lot of other states across the nation, that uptick. And so you touched on this a little bit in your last answer, but do you think Governor Kevin Stitt’s response to the virus has been enough in the state of Oklahoma?
Provenzano: I guess I'd have to disagree with that. I think the response has been sort of trying to fly a plane and attach the wings at the same time and figure out how to read the manual to navigate this. And so I do have some grace for that, but then I'm concerned with some of the practices that we've seen. Two big ones: Number one, having large quantities of personal protective equipment, posing in front of the personal protective equipment, but we have first responders and nurses and health care professionals who are being asked to reuse their protective equipment, was a struggle for many people to stomach. The second piece was the hydroxychloroquine purchase: Oklahoma was one of three states that actually purchased; we purchased $2 million worth of the stuff. And then there were the other two states that spent, oh gosh, probably $700,000. Every other state got it donated. So now that it's been proven not to be a helpful aid, we just wasted a few million bucks. And so that's bothersome. And we've asked the attorney general to take a look into that and he's now doing so.
The other piece that the governor oversees, the Oklahoma Employment Security Commission — and unemployment has been a major hurdle here. One in three folks in Oklahoma is now out of work. And the system that you use to file for unemployment here in Oklahoma was just absolutely assaulted, and it hasn't been paid attention, much like other things in Oklahoma, for about the last decade. And so it crashed and then it crashed again. And here we are 12 weeks later and we still have folks — we're on our third director of that office and things are starting to move, I have faith in this new director — but we still have folks struggling.
We're not in session right now but 99% of my job right now is fielding calls from people that are in my district saying, “please help.” I had a call yesterday from a gentleman who said, “okay, I still can't get paid. I'm approved. I have a debit card. There's no money on it. I still can't get paid. And I am now out of the medication I need to keep me alive.” And so I spent a long time trying to find local resources for him to get his hands on those medicines until we can continue to get this worked out. So by and large, I think while some opportunities were missed, we definitely learned a lot from it.
The education component: as a result of the teacher walkout, the state Department of Education was actually prepared for with an emergency response and implemented a lot of the practices that they did — and that was from a couple of years ago. So it was pretty smooth. But it was very apparent that moving to an online platform was not realistic for Oklahoma. And now when we came back into session for a few days, we passed a bill that said, “okay, it's time to expand rural broadband so kids can have access.” I was listening to some representative that lives way out in the middle of nowhere; he goes, “I have the internet, but I have to buy my data package for my home and you watch a movie and that's it for the month. It's the whole — all your data. So you have to parcel it out.” So we need to kind of step into the next century with that.
Pineda: Your career has been heavily focused on education. You used to be a teacher and a principal. You're on the Common Education committee and you've sponsored over 20 education related bills during your time in office. What is something that, as a country, we can be doing better for education or what are some steps that we could do to improve education?
Provenzano: I can respond easier at the state level but I'm sure it applies nationally. There's a push to privatize education unfortunately with the voucher system, even here in Oklahoma, and there has been a push every session I've paid attention to since the dawn of time to prioritize education for vouchers. That is something we need to leave behind, to be quite honest, because private schools may or may not accept a student. And if we're talking about true student choice, that's not student choice: That's private school choice. You also can apply for vouchers but you may or may not be able to use the voucher towards the entire balance of the tuition at the private school. And so we really need to fund education appropriately for our needs. And public schools take everybody: They take everybody — and they should. But if we're going to say, “you, and not you, can come to this private school,” they shouldn't have this type of public education dollars.
I think that would be a piece one, but then we also need to move away from just testing our kids into oblivion. I mean there's a definite need for assessment and being able to take a pulse on how our schools are doing. But public schools have gotten a black eye that, to be honest, they didn't deserve nationally. And we have this A-F report card here in the state of Oklahoma — and it looks different in other states — but what we've found, and what universities here in the state of Oklahoma who studied the model have found, is it's an excellent measure of poverty and that's about it. And so we really actually need to turn our focus to what's really working here in the state of Oklahoma, because there's a lot that is working, but then focus on college readiness and career and technical readiness. And, are we getting these kids prepared with the skills they need for life beyond high school? And so I think, you know, we have amazing kids. We have amazing teachers. We haven't shone a light on that. Now to flip that coin over, there's always room for improvement. But I've never met a teacher that didn't want to get better and you didn’t want to say, “yeah, I'll go to that summer training. I'll do this. I'll do that to get better.” And so I think that needs to continue as well.
Pineda: Of course; that kind of leads into my next question. One of the bills that you sponsored was the Oklahoma Teacher Loan Repayment Program and that bill was aimed at helping teachers earn back money on their student loans. Why did you sponsor that bill and how did it come about?
Provenzano: So actually I developed that in tandem with Representative John Waldron. And we actually, this past summer, met with a consortium of all the higher-ed universities and colleges here in the state of Oklahoma and looked at their data and said, “you know, number one: our enrollment in these programs is dropping. It's bottoming out and with the coming teacher retirement issue that we have here in the next year or two, we've got to shore this up, this teacher pipeline.” And each university's kind of doing this one off — here's how we can help with a scholarship here, there’s a work study there — but we need a comprehensive effort to bring teachers back into the fold. And Oklahoma has an incredibly large number of emergency certified teachers, so where they're actually the majority now here in Oklahoma. And on average — and those are folks that didn't necessarily get trained to become a teacher but have applied for emergency certification and then take the test later — but those folks aren't staying; their average is two years tops that they stayed. And you really only kind of find your groove as a teacher about year three or year four, because first year you're just trying to figure it out yourself. And so what the student loan repayment program does well is it will bring hopefully folks back into the fold wanting to become teachers. Because the concern about student loan debt is very real — which is something else I can talk about in a minute — but taking on all this debt, never being able to pay it off or being saddled with it your whole entire life is definitely a limiting factor. And if every teacher that's eligible — every teacher, principal, superintendent — that's eligible for retirement here in Oklahoma this next year or two decided to go ahead and retire: We're in a tight spot and it looks even way worse than the teacher exodus that has been happening for the last few years because of pay. We've got that turned around more or less, but retirement is something that we've got to focus on.
Pineda: Changing gears a little bit. There's obviously been a lot of recent civil unrest still with the death of George Floyd. Do you think your district and the city of Tulsa overall responded well to some of the protests?
Provenzano: Yeah. You kind of alluded to it before: We've been here, we've done that before. The anniversary of the Tulsa race massacre was right in there, right around those few days. And Tulsa has learned a lot, but still has a lot left to go. And one of the things that I think was demonstrated with that is: there's a lot of things that we've been letting slip. Black lives do matter. And as an educator who’s worked in the urban schools, I'd rather be nowhere else. If I was teaching — and it is truly looking through the lens of what someone's life looks like and putting yourself in those shoes — that is what is needed.
And again, the Tulsa response: I will hand it to our Tulsa police. We have a new police chief, Chief Franklin. And they showed incredible restraint with our Black Lives Matter protesters. They engaged in peaceful protest for the large part. But it was those folks that kind of, you know, show up at the end of the night when your mom says, “nothing good happens at 2 o'clock in the morning.” I think that's where the vandalism and those sorts of things happened, but the organizing group on day one and all of the protests beyond there were peaceful. And the Tulsa police, by and large, have been peaceful and responded with great restraint. In meeting with the organizers of the protest, the mayor and the chief of police did Tulsa well because they televised that conversation the following day — and it was hard to listen to — but it was the work that needed to happen to move our city forward. And Chief Franklin talked about the programs that they're like, “we know we need these programs. We know we need de-escalation training for recognizing mental health issues, hidden bias training, those sorts of things.”
But we cannot get those with the current structure of how we collect revenue in the city of Tulsa — and in the United States or cities across the land — are largely reliant on sales tax. And so pretty much that goes to pay for salaries and the supplies that they need. But anything over and above? It's reliant on grant funding. And grant funding is here today, gone tomorrow. And it can do a lot of good for a short amount of time. And so we need to relook now; I think that's where they want to go. They want to be able to shore up funding so they can improve here in Tulsa. So I think on both sides — gosh, it was hard. But I think there's a desire to be better here in Tulsa.
Pineda: You alluded to this a little bit in your last answer, but could you just talk with me a little bit more about what people can do to advance the conversation of race in America in their day-to-day lives.
Provenzano: Again, I think you have to be willing — and my answer might be a bit different then some you might encounter — but I think you have to be willing to engage in the hard conversation with somebody that doesn't necessarily agree with you. In the last three years, we've seen a lot of voices that really have concerned us. And even my own sister's like, “I thought we were sort of further along in this conversation than we were.” And when you think about it, we silenced those voices: “No, don't talk like that. Don't be like that.” And finally, there's like a microphone for voices of racist behavior and racist beliefs. And it shows personally that perhaps we've been suppressing that voice when what we really need to do is get in a room and have the hard conversations on why these things are happening — to burn out racist thoughts, behaviors and actions. You have to find common ground. And boy, that's an uncomfortable topic, but I think that's what we have to do. You have to be willing to meet someone halfway, even if you don't like it. And I know others are like, “no, this way or the highway,” but then that'll only silence the voices again until the next time.
Pineda: That's an excellent point. How did you get interested in politics and government? And what advice would you give people who want to go into those fields?
Provenzano: Number one, do it sooner rather than later. You have like all these 20-somethings that are like, “oh, should I”— yes. Sign up to run for something. Please, do it now. Do it when you don't have a career you have to put on hold to go do it. The pay stinks, but it's worth it.
I actually was a principal in the city of Tulsa — a teacher, principal, administrator — at a few different sites for about the last decade. And I got tired of cutting people and cutting programs. I was a principal of a tough urban school and, gosh, those kids are my favorite kids in the whole wide world, but then I had to cut this teacher and that program and that teacher — and that's what we've been doing in Oklahoma for the last decade and finally I got sick of it. And I'm like, “you know what? I have to be part of the change.” Then boom, teacher walkout happened and I thought, “well, here's your sign.”
And so I signed up. And my district is actually purple; it's been held by a Republican for, well, forever. I'm the first Democrat to ever hold the seat, first woman to ever hold this seat. And it was just, honest to goodness, sweat equity that put me here — and it's going to take that again this next election cycle.
But, you know, so many people are like, “well, why would we do that?” But we have to embed the professionals back into the process and get the smart folks in a room together at the state and start working. Because special interest is definitely embedded and we can do better. And that's kind of where I'm at and why I decided, “you know what? We had an education crisis and we've got that turn — that ship is going.” Now it's very clear that it's not just education that's been defunded and not paid attention to over the last decade. We've got health care, we've got mental health care. We have a crippled criminal justice system. And I have to stick with it. I would encourage anybody that's even thinking about running to sign up and put your hat in the ring.
Pineda: Is there a sense of pride in being the first woman to hold a seat? Is that something that just means a lot to you?
Provenzano: Yeah. First of all, first Democrat is a milestone. That means that the people in my district are willing to — hopefully that means the people in my district are willing to — take a look beyond party and find out who the person is and vote past the party, which is not something we've had before in a long time.
So that part: it is a sense of pride, but humility, because this is a servant's job. And if you're not wanting to be a servant — I mean, because we're in session from February to May, but the job is year round. And I'm sure most people in Oklahoma don't realize that. So yeah, I think so. It's a big deal.
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