In my first two stabs at the beast that is the new federal education law–the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA)–I discussed the issues of “High Standards for All Students” and “Annual Standardized Testing.”

From the diagram, you can see we still have a lot of fat to chew on in the next few months as we discover what is really in this behemoth piece of legislation.

Yet, before I dive into some of the meatier pieces of the elephant, I need to spend a few words talking about the single most important principle of the new law.

As detailed in this summary from Vox Education, the essential aspect of this legislation is that it moves the conversation relative to school reform. The big decisions will now be made in state capitals and legislatures and not in Congress or by Arne Duncan or John King at the Department of Education.

ESSA rightfully shifts decision-making back to the states where it rightfully belongs.

This could be a big deal. Or it could be nothing.

Fifteen years ago, President George W. Bush and Congress collaborated to subvert the US Constitution with a massive power grab of American public schools through the vehicle of NCLB, which continued with President Obama’s Race to the Top (RttT) and ESEA waivers.

I’m still not sure how and why states allowed this to happen.

The fact is that the federal government provides less than 10% of all education funding in our nation. There is also no constitutional provision that allows this type of overreach.  I do not profess to be a constitutional scholar, but it difficult for me to see the authority for federal control of state education systems in the language of the Tenth Amendment:

Consequently, It is a VERY good thing that some of this control has been shifted back to states and local boards of education.

Fortunately, we also have a state superintendent in office now who is a strong advocate of public education.

At the same time, we live in Oklahoma. For this reason, I am more than a little concerned. It is ultimately the legislature who must write and pass any new laws to improve these reforms or remove them entirely. And the Governor has to sign them.

We all want to have confidence that our state leaders are better equipped to write education policy than the feds. Yet, very little has happened in the last ten years that gives us much confidence this is true.

The ESSA provides states with greater flexibility, yet there are still significant strings attached.

As Rick Cobb detailed this weekend, there are quite a few education-related items we would like to see our legislature get to work on next spring. The first priority is the approval of new academic standards. But, after this, what will our lawmakers do with the new flexibility provided by ESSA?

Many of us are hopeful that we can do something to improve our current A-F school grading system. It has been widely discredited as flawed and inaccurate. However, the Senator who was the primary author of A-F legislation back in 2013 still occupies a powerful position on the Senate Education committee.

This is the same Senator who then claimed arrogantly that the A-F bill’s language was intentionally written with no involvement from university researchers, superintendents or the Oklahoma State Department of Education “because we wanted to have ownership over it.

I wonder if Senator Jolley still feels this way?

Relative to A-F, under ESSA, states have to devise a “system of meaningfully differentiating” schools by looking at academics in addition to at least one other factor, as long as the academics are given “much greater weight.”

ESSA calls for states to intervene in the bottom 5% of their schools, in addition to schools where specific groups of students consistently under perform and high schools with graduation rates below 67%. States can determine what they do to those schools, as long as the interventions are “evidence-based.”

That language makes it sound as though, ultimately, states must boil down every factor they’re looking at and give each school a rating.

Therefore, whatever we come up with for Oklahoma schools will be inaccurate and invalid. Consider for just a second the meaning and highly subjective nature of the phrase “much greater weight.” Even my spell checker points out this is a redundant expression.

Exactly how much is “much”? And how will our lawmakers interpret this phrase? Does this mean our legislature can decide to use test scores for 51% percent of the school rating, with other factors making up the other 49%?

You bet. It also means they could decide to keep them as the basis for 100% of the school rating. It’s completely up to them.

I submit that ANY system that attempts to critically compare widely different schools, of different sizes, in different communities, with different cultures and public expectations, and narrow that assessment to a single, objective score or grade is doomed to failure. But, the law is the law. Oklahoma will still have to play the game or risk loss of federal funding.

I suppose my biggest concern is the fact that a good number of our current state lawmakers are not what we would call, “friends of public education.”

We have far too many who believe that our public schools are still bloated bureaucracies filled with lazy teachers and incompetent administrators.

We have far too many who believe that our schools are sitting on mountains of extra cash and refusing to let this money flow to teachers in the classroom.

We have far too many who believe all children would be successful if we just worked harder and raised our expectations.

We have far too many who believe that teachers and school leaders are avoiding accountability when we push back against inaccurate and invalid teacher rating systems.

We have far too many who believe that prescription for educational equity is giving everyone a ESA check card to attend the private school of their choice.

We have far too many who believe that annual state tests are accurate and meaningful measures of student learning.

We have far too many who believe that every child, regardless of native language, disability status, poverty, or out-of-school factors should be forced to pass an algebra test to earn a high school diploma.

We have far too many who believe that the best approach to foster a love for reading in young people is to threaten them with grade retention as a nine-year-old.

In summary, we still have far too many of the same state legislators in office that we had when these reforms were implemented in the first place. They could decide that everything they have done over the past five years is fine and dandy and that we should just shut up and get used to it.

In fact, some will be counting on that.

State control of education means much more than a group of politicians setting policy in Oklahoma City. Rather, it is OUR obligation as Oklahoma citizens to control the “state” with our voice and our vote.

If lawmakers choose to listen to outside interests instead of their local constituents–we, the people who put them in office–they have no business staying in office.

It is also incredibly important that we tell our positives story first and often. If we do not advocate for ourselves, it’s possible no one else will.

Silence is not a neutral position, whatever your intentions. When you are a presence that lacks a voice, you create an empty space that another voice – a dominating voice that knows no boundaries – is only too happy to fill. Haven’t we learned this lesson by now?

Silence automatically supports the status quo. If we say and do nothing in the next few months, other voices, like those from American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC), the Oklahoma Center for Public Affairs (OCPA), and the editorial board of The Oklahoman will fill the void.

We cannot allow that to happen. Each one of us is important. Each one of us can do something.

What will you do?