VIDEO: Senator Lankford Advocates for Greater Local Control of Education Policy, End to No Child Left Behind

WASHINGTON, DC – Senator James Lankford (R-OK) today delivered a speech on the floor of the U.S. Senate about the ongoing education debate over No Child Left Behind and Every Child Achieves Act (S. 1177). Since No Child Left Behind was passed in 2001, it has forced states to adopt mandates imposed by Washington, such as Common Core, and test-based academic requirements. The Every Child Achieves Act will give state and local governments more control of education decisions, and decrease federal test-based requirements. Both No Child Left Behind and Every Child Achieves Act are reauthorization bills for the Elementary and Secondary Education Act of 1965.

Lankford co-authored and voted for the A-PLUS amendment on July 9, but it failed by a vote of 44-54. The A-PLUS amendment would have provided states even more autonomy to opt out of federal programs outlined under the No Child Left Behind Act of 2001. A-PLUS would have also given states and local governments the authority to direct federal dollars toward the needs and programs for the state.

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Below is the transcript from the speech:

“Mr. President, in the 1960’s, the Johnson administration led Congress to start allotting a small amount of money of federal funding from the federal taxpayers to target schools and reach out for the poorest of the poor in America to try to help beat poverty back. Five decades later, we have an education policy in America that reaches out to every single school district in America, millions of kids that continue to fail them, to fail their parents, and still have not solved the poverty issue. 

What we have is an ever-increasing federal bureaucracy that’s reached well beyond what it was designed for in the 1960’s. And it reaches well beyond what it was originally designed for, something that would just help the poorest of the poor or take care of kids on military bases and those on Indian tribal bases. No Child Left Behind passes in 2001 authorizing education policy that was even more expansive. The goal was good – to make sure every child in America has the opportunity for success, every teacher had teaching qualifications and every school had accountability. It was approved through 2008. It still continues today. Math, reading and science, now measured in adequate yearly progress for each school. And it’s become this slow rolling disaster. 

The problem was the source and the goal. Parents, local districts and states should set education policy. I would think that’s something we should agree on, not a massively centralized, controlled bureaucracy. The bureaucracy that’s here made up of a lot of nice folks that do care about kids, just most of the folks that are here in this bureaucracy deal with education have never been to Oklahoma… and the folks in Oklahoma don’t know their names and don’t know where they’re managing their district. 

The goal should be progress for each student, not each school. But the annual yearly progress demanded by No Child Left Behind really managed the progress of the school, not the child. I can assure you the parents at home with not trying to figure out is their school better. They’re trying to figure out is their child better in this particular subject? Yearly progress and the federal mandates that put my state in the untenable position of playing mother-may-I with the federal government to ask for a waiver ever single year from the national education board to determine what our schools in Oklahoma can and cannot do. That has to change. We want our students in Oklahoma to be college and career ready. We want accountability to the parents and the community. We want less burden on the educators who give their life and time to the task of helping parents and those children. We want that. As surprising it is a may be to some in Washington, D.C., we actually do care about our kids. We want the best for them. So we ask a simple thing: allow Oklahomans to manage education for Oklahomans, and just take this assumption: we do love our kids and we are going to work hard to make sure they are taken well care of. 

My mom was an educator for decades. She came out and started teaching elementary school. Then went into the library and was an elementary librarian, then a high school librarian then moved into the black hole of education that’s the administration building downtown, where she worked in burn-out position in school administration for a district for years. She’s passionate about kids. She passed that on to me. I started out my first year in college as a business major. I thoroughly enjoyed it for probably a week. And then shifted the next year to secondary education, the thing that I fought against because my mom was in education, so surely I shouldn’t do the same thing. But I loved being with students. I spent 22 years of my life serving students after college. It is a passion in my family. There are multiple educators both at the college level and in schools in my family. We believe in education. 

Student teaching time that I had in college I will never forget, interacting with those kids for the first time, stepping out of a college setting of being the student to now suddenly being the student-teacher and having a classroom and understanding for the first time, it is my responsibility to help these parents educate their children. That I’m not now the parent for this child. This child has a parent. That parent has the responsibility to raise their child well but I have a responsibility to come alongside that parent and help. Allow us to have that. 

This is what I want. I want greater flexibility for states. I want greater authority and responsibility to be placed on parents in education. The people in Oklahoma want the freedom to be able to make decisions about their own children and their own families. That’s why I voted for the A-PLUS act. I tried to add that as an amendment to this bill. Steve Daines, from Montana, and I and multiple others supported the ability for states to have even more control if they choose to, to have both the responsibility and the authority for all areas of all parts of education. Now, we didn’t win that amendment… but it was a blanket we want everything to go back to states if they choose to have it. We’ll continue to have that fight in the days ahead. 

Lamar Alexander brought an amendment out that would have been great to have. It allowed parents to choose their schools regardless of whether it is public or private. Education union leaders had kittens about that saying that the public schools are getting better, so we don’t want to take funds away from the public schools. We want to keep all those funds in the public schools, but the parents are saying, “I understand that school is getting better someday, but my child is there right now.” While certain leaders in schools will say we can’t have federal funds move to follow the child, I would say, would you allow the parent to help that child have the one shot that they’re going to get to get education and allow them to choose wherever they want to go? 

That’s why I’m also a supporter of things like the D.C. Opportunity scholarships that will allow children in Washington, D.C., to be able to choose the school that they attend. The President has fought adamantly against that. So have the education unions. But quite frankly the parents here in D.C. want to have the option to send their child anywhere they choose to be able to send them.

I’d like to see more reduction in duplication of education programs. There is real reduction in this particular bill, but I’d like to see even more. We have education programs in the Department of Defense and Ag and Health and Human Services and multiple other places, scattered around the bureaucracy. We need to be able to shrink down all those different programs and to be able to make sure we’re not feeding the bureaucracy but we’re actually helping kids. I’d actually like to see more in this bill dealing with options for those that are homeless. This bill helps us get a better count and a better insight on the educational quality in the graduation rate for homeless and for foster children, but I’d like to have greater flexibility built into this bill, which I didn’t get. But I’d like the parents and the people in that local district to be able to have a better decision-making capability. 

What did I get? There are some things we won in this bill. No common core mandates…. I can assure you in my state of Oklahoma, most ever person stands and cheers when they find out one thing… that there’s no common core mandates in this, there’s no federal tests at all. States, my state in particular, will have absolute control over standardized testing and the results of those tests and how we apply the information gained from that test. The leaders in my state will manage that, control that, make sure that that’s accurate for us. No federal education standards, no federal curriculum. There is reduction in some of the education programs and I’m glad to see that, though as I’ve already mentioned, I’d like to see more of that. 

The breaking down of some of the funding silos. You realize right now if there’s money available in one silo dealing with kitchens, for instance, and nutrition for a school, they may allot federal dollars and say, you can have those federal dollars if you want to buy a new oven. But if a district says, we don’t need more money for ovens, we need money for special education, the federal government currently says, no, you can’t do that. You have to buy a new oven. That’s dumb. Why don’t we allow the district to make that decision? This bill begins to break down some of those funding silos and gives them the opportunity to be able to make decisions on that. I’d like to see and what I did get was more local control of the education, dramatically increased local control, in fact. Local authority and additional local responsibility. That’s the way it should be. Inhofe and I even had a bill on local School Board flexibility. We got a good down payment on that bill. There is more to go on that and we need a chance to see even additional things. Those are things that we were able to win. 

Can I tell you the one big thing that we really won? It’s that my state, after this bill passes, if we can get this bill done, my state no longer has to crawl back to Washington, D.C., every year and beg for a waiver in education to maintain the education funding, which by the way came out of our state. Literally the federal taxpayers pay in with their tax dollars and the state of Oklahoma has to come crawling to Washington, D.C., saying, ‘can I please have those dollars back to our state?’ Right now we have to do that every year. My state actually lost federal control because we chose not to do common core. And the department of education said, if you don’t do this, then you’re going to lose your funding. And for months we lost control of that funding. But that was our choice, because we were setting our own standards. We’ve now won that waiver back. In fact, just a few weeks ago, that waiver was renewed again. Can I tell you, I am already sick to death of our state having to come beg for the federal dollars that we put into the system and to get permission from someone in Washington, D.C. This bill finally fixes that. 

Does it go as far as I want to go? No, I have been pretty clear about that. But it is the first step on a long journey towards taking us back to the direction where we need to be. Our schools, our parents make the decisions for our kids. Again I remind you, Oklahoma kids do love their kids. Oklahoma legislators are doing a great job of trying to turn some things around in a very hard situation. Let’s give them the ability to be able to do that. I encourage this body to be able to pass this education bill and let’s get going again towards educating our students and doing the right thing. With that, I yield back.