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 Mary Fallin’s approval, repealed the Common Core standards without replacing them with new standards.

State legislators and the governor impulsively repealed the academic standards for schools supposedly because of over-hyped federal intrusion and then didn’t replace them right away with new standards, which could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.