No matter where I travel in the state, people want to talk about education. We are all concerned about our state budget deficit, but many Oklahomans are just as concerned about our state’s education deficit. As a parent of a child in our public schools, this is also a big deal to me. Fortunately, the first step to real education reform already has happened, transitioning more education control away from Washington, D.C.
For more than a decade, Oklahoma schools have been forced to operate under the failed federal law known as No Child Left Behind. When the law passed in 2001, it required states to achieve unrealistic federal mandates on annual standardized tests for reading and math by 2014. When any school or state did not meet the Washington, D.C. standard, it created chaos for parents, schools and states, including Oklahoma.
Certainly, every student and school ought to have standards and evaluation, but who sets those standards and who writes the test? Whoever controls the test, controls the school.
Until late last year, our state legislators and local school boards had their hands tied when it came to making any practical reforms to our education system. For the past several years, the federal Department of Education has acted as a national school board. The legal standards were set so high that very few states could achieve the standard, and those states that didn’t had to go hat-in-hand to the Department of Education to request a waiver. Waivers were only given to states that changed their teaching and evaluation system to Washington’s preferences, which took authority away from Oklahomans. Centralized national decision-making on education reduces the role of the parent and the local districts. It also gives education authority to one group and responsibility to another — that will never work.
However, there is good news. In December, the Senate passed and the president signed into a law, the Every Student Succeeds Act, which finally repealed No Child Left Behind and ended the federal waiver system. While there is more to be done in education, this is the essential first step to get our schools back on track. Now, Oklahoma has more authority and more responsibility to improve our schools.
Every schoolteacher will tell you that there is no substitute for engaged parents in the education of a child. When parents read to their kids, encourage their study and provide a safe and stable home environment, children have a much greater chance of school and life success. For the future of our kids, parents and teachers must team together and honor each other.
As our state Legislature begins its session, there is still more work to be done nationally to facilitate this work. As Congress debated the Every Student Succeeds Act last year, I supported the A-PLUS amendment, which would have provided states and local leaders even greater ability to completely opt out of federal programs and instead direct federal dollars toward the needs and programs determined by the state. I also supported much greater flexibility for school choice and parental decision-making. Unfortunately, both amendments failed in the Senate.
As many Americans recognized National School Choice Week this week, I believe the argument about school choice is not about the future of our schools, it is about the future of our children. School leaders might argue to keep more money and control so they can make education improvements, but children in the school do not have time for hoped-for future improvements, they need help today. Why would we ever tell a parent to sacrifice their child’s future so we can protect a school today?
Our state will face a lot of tough decisions in the coming days, including education. I have the highest confidence that state legislators and Oklahomans will step up to the plate and make good decisions with their recaptured education authority. Practical quality education is possible and expected.
Oklahomans want a great future for their kids that will begin with empowered parents and expanded educational opportunities for every child, no matter where they live. In 2016, our state has an opportunity to lead and prove to all of America that strong families and a great education provide the best future for our kids.