Teachable Moment

Image of Oklahoma State Capitol

The Republican response here to the decision by the federal government to deny Oklahoma a continued waiver for provisions of the No Child Left Behind program is about as rote and hollow as teaching to the test.

The federal Education Department made the decision, which could impact how some $29 million in federal money gets spent in state schools, because the state legislature, with Gov. Mary Fallin’s approval, repealed the Common Core standards without replacing them with new standards.

State legislators and the governor impulsively repealed the academic standards for schools supposedly because of over-hyped federal intrusion and then didn’t replace them right away with new standards, which could have prevented the mess. The federal government then made an appropriate and reasoned decision to ensure there are some standards in the state’s schools tied to federal money.

What’s more, consider that the No Child Left Behind (NCLB) program was an initiative passed in Congress with the full backing and support of President George W. Bush, a Republican. Bush signed NCLB into law in 2002.

But Republicans here won’t let these basic facts get into their way. Their political strategy, which has become not only tiresome by also extremely ineffective, is to demonize President Barack Obama and hope voters here don’t pay attention to the details.

For example, in a prepared statement, Fallin said:

It is outrageous that President Obama and Washington bureaucrats are trying to dictate how Oklahoma schools spend education dollars. Because of overwhelming opposition from Oklahoma parents and voters to Common Core, Washington is now acting to punish us. This is one more example of an out-of-control presidency that places a politicized Washington agenda over the well-being of Oklahoma students.

Oklahoma Senate Pro Tem Brian Bingman, a Sapulpa Republican, weighed in with the anti-Obama rhetoric as well:

President Obama and the United States Department of Education have chosen to place politics ahead of the well-being of Oklahomans. Our education reform efforts have been squarely focused on ushering in higher standards and empowering parents with choice and more ability to direct their children’s education. Unfortunately, the President and Washington bureaucrats have responded with a decision that attempts to place additional burdens on schools.

Any logical person would probably surmise that Obama has more important issues to deal with than some state legislature and governor that makes an impulsive decision to do away with academic standards in schools without specific replacement. Fallin’s statement that “Washington is now acting to punish us” is pure hyperbole. The federal government’s response is a rational consequence to an irrational decision.

I’m no fan of NCLB or high-stakes testing, in general, but the failure of politicians, such as Fallin and Bingman, to anticipate the federal response to the repeal of standards was a huge mistake with consequences that were clear at the time. It’s “outrageous,” to use Fallin’s word, they didn’t think it through appropriately.

The okeducationtruths blog has published an excellent post over the impact of the waiver loss and how state leaders knew what was coming. One result, according to the post, is that the official list of schools needing improvement could grow from 400 to 1600. It could also lead to staff cuts at schools, the post notes. In short, it’s another mess in a state known for its radical right-wing politicians, who often replace basic logic with ideology, sweeping generalizations and reductionist sloganeering.

The political question has become whether voters here are waking up to the conservative posturing that creates its own litany of quagmires and problems. Fallin’s approval ratings have dropped, for example. Can Democrat and gubernatorial candidate Joe Dorman upset her in the November election? The fact it remains a legitimate question a few weeks outside of the election might be a sign of an important political shift in the state.

Whither Logic? Whither Fairness?

Image of wind turbines

The Oklahoman has long supported just about anything the oil and gas industry does in the state and elsewhere, and two of its recent commentaries show just how much its cloying, crude genuflection has crossed sensible boundaries.

Last Tuesday, the newspaper’s site published an editorial arguing, “Birds are being killed by the thousands at solar and wind power projects.” Thus, the argument goes, producing wind and solar power is just as, if not more, environmentally destructive as oil and gas drilling, something the Environmental Protection Agency and President Barack Obama just don’t get.

The editorial, titled “On energy front, one standard needed for wildlife protection,” essentially wants its readers to feel sorry for big energy companies, mentioning, “The Obama administration . . . has delayed approval of a Canada-U.S. pipeline project for years.” Meanwhile, listen up, these terrible wind farms and solar plants are killing birds.

Here are a couple of responses to this nonsense:

First, let’s be clear that wind and solar power are renewable energy sources while oil and gas are finite even despite the recent fracking boom. It only stands to reason that the development of renewable sources should be granted some leeway and time to determine its initial impact on the environment. Yes, wind turbines and solar plants can and do kill birds, but are there ways to remedy this? The answer is worthy of contemplation and study, and I’m sure that’s happening. The answer absolutely IS NOT eliminating oil and gas drilling regulations. The Oklahoman editorial page is constantly making what I call “baby-fit arguments.” This baby argument—imagine a small child throwing a fit in the middle of the living room—goes like this: Wind and solar power gets to kill little birdies. Why can’t oil and gas wells kill birdies, too. Want to kill birdies. Want to kill birdies. Want to kill birdies.” It’s ridiculous. The Oklahoman editorial page needs a timeout.

Second, speaking of killing birds, some scientists estimate that about 800,000 birds were killed by the 2010 BP-operated oil rig explosion and resulting spill in the Gulf of Mexico. The explosion also killed eleven people and had a devastating impact on the Louisiana economy. The Oklahoman doesn’t mention the BP disaster in its editorial.

Another editorial published Sunday—“Whither the U.S. energy boom? Answer may lie in the halls of government”—extoled the fracking boom in Oklahoma, Texas and North Dakota, noting, “The last thing Oklahoma’s economy needs is depressed energy prices.” The editorial also whines “. . . but the beat will go on to demonize the one thing that’s increasing domestic supply and defusing the potential of international crises to create panic in the marketplace.” Specifically, it mentions a proposal to ban fracking in the Denton, Texas city limits while vaguely referencing a Colorado anti-fracking initiative.

So the newspaper’s argument is this: Not only do we basically need higher gasoline prices and high natural gas prices to support the oil and gas industry here, but those people who are against fracking are ruining everything, which is bad, bad, bad for the world. Meanwhile, scientists argue that wastewater disposal wells used in the fracking process are to blame for the earthquake emergency the state now faces, and environmentalists continue to claim fracking leads to water contamination. There is no mention of these important factors in the editorial or anything about the relationship between global warming and carbon. It’s just a blanket endorsement of fracking and how important it is to geopolitics, which is immensely debatable.

The Oklahoman, operated for decades by the ultra-conservative Gaylord family, is now owned by Philip Anschutz, the Colorado billionaire who made his money in the energy business. So it’s no wonder the newspaper is a radical defender of the oil and gas industry. The newspaper simply can’t be trusted to say anything remotely fair about the oil and gas industry on its editorial page.

I’ve said this for years: We live in the Fossil Fuel Age, which will end and become a blip in history if it doesn’t lead to the destruction of the planet. Once the last drop of oil is squeezed from the earth here in Oklahoma, the big energy companies and the ultra-rich millionaires and billionaires who operated them will be gone.

No one reading this will probably be alive when the Fossil Fuel Age ends, but it's only going to become increasingly obvious in the years to come that renewable energy sources remain the answer to our survival.

Education Reform Failure

Image of Picasso work

I can’t recall a time in Oklahoma when the politics of education was such a mess.

Not all of it is the direct fault of state politicians, which obviously include Gov. Mary Fallin and outgoing, controversial Schools Superintendent Janet Barresi, but they are the main factor in the problem. The other factor is the nationwide movement pushing high-stakes testing, which is driven by misguided conservative dogma.

What all this means is that students are getting used as pawns by politicians extoling unproven educational theories based on conservative ideology not best classroom practices. Here’s how that conservative ideology works: Starve schools of taxpayer funding, implement high-stakes testing to show failure, make the claim that privatization and the commodification of the public school system will solve the problem.

But is this all starting to unravel for the so-called “reformers” of education? Two new developments show just how messy things have gotten in Oklahoma educational politics and that this might well be the case.

(1) The federal Education Department is taking away the state’s waiver for its No Child Left Behind program because the legislature and Fallin repealed Common Core standards this year without replacing them with new standards. The stated aim of the repeal was to prevent federal intrusion into Oklahoma’s educational system. Yet the repeal itself has brought that about far more directly than had the standards remained in place. Poetic justice or just plain dumb?

(2) Schools Superintendent Janet Barresi just announced that fifth and eighth grade writing scores will not be used this year to determine the draconian A-F school report cards because of problems with the test administered by the private vendor CTB-McGraw Hill. This is the second year in a row there were what have been called “disruptions” in the company’s online testing system, which has prompted an investigation by Attorney General Scott Pruitt to determine financial accountability.

The two events might seem unrelated, but a closer look reveals this main connection: Conservative school reformers, whether rejecting federal intrusion in schools or pushing for high-stakes testing by private companies, have failed to improve schools and only create quagmires and muddles. Their policies and procedures don’t work.

It’s just too bad we have to continue to play it all out in Oklahoma.

Syndicate content