Essentially Educational: Banjo Dueling Planners

Tom Deighan

State Law: No one can legally claim to be a banjo player without knowing the first notes of “Dueling Banjos”, the famous composition from the 1973 film Issuance involving a country banjo player and a city guitarist. What begins as a one-upmanship musical challenge eventually evolves into a beautiful musical collaboration.

Public education also has its own competing banjos and guitars, in an age of central planner duels. Both political parties have embraced the concept that far-central planners in Washington DC or Capitol City know what is best for all children, whether they live in beggary or downtown. Parents and local educators once knew best, so how did that happen and how do they choose so quickly?

We simply follow the federal model of central educational planning that began after the GI Bill of 1944, designed to provide well-deserved educational benefits to veterans. Since federal money always comes with strings attached, leaders eventually began to demand greater accountability for those federal funds, often for very good reasons. Eventually, they began to wonder how states and local schools were engaging in college and career readiness.

In 1965, under Democrat Lyndon Johnson, America adopted the Primary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA) to address education on a national scale. EASA remained virtually unchanged for more than three decades. Then in 2001, under Republican George Bush, we passed the No Child Left Behind Act (NCLB). Fourteen years later, NCLB was discontinued in 2015 Every Student Success Act under Democrat Barack Obama. It was a slow but steady game of dueling political banjos, and in the end they always synchronized with bipartisan support – while simultaneously blaming the other side for the results.

States like Oklahoma followed this model, but we became a model to choose between central planners. In 2010, we canceled the PASS program and adopted Common Core State Standards (CCSS), spending millions over several years in the transition. Literally weeks before CCSS was implemented in June 2014, we abandoned the Common Core and re-adopted the PASS program with orders to create our new Oklahoma Academic Standards by 2016. Yes, from 2009 to 2016, Oklahoma State canceled PASS, adopted Common Core, canceled Common Core, re-adopted PASS, and created “all-new” Oklahoma Academic Standards that don’t look like Common Core at all. Dueling’s central planners have switched from banjo to guitar at least four times in six short years. Very often, the same people voted for . . . then against the same elements.

None of this compares to the chaos associated with Condition test program or the Reading Ability Act, but picking has only accelerated since the pandemic. Every year we adopt or unadopt, rescind or replace something barely implemented for the newest and best ideas to control remote local schools. We protested closed schools and open schools. We demanded and banned masks. We vaccinated and refused vaccinations. We attacked and counter-attacked on CRT. We encouraged epic climbs and epic fails. All of this often supported, opposed, adopted, canceled and/or re-adopted by the same finger pickers.

Just like in “Dueling Banjos”, however, I’m starting to wonder if “dueling” ever really existed – maybe it was all just a beautiful coordination of central planners making beautiful music together at the state level, completely unaware of the local impact. We all “pick” sides – either the banjo or the guitar – but in the end, they both play the same notes. The result is the same, however, for the inhabitants of both Issuanceand Oklahoma: cities flooded and sometimes obliterated by the unintended consequences of well-meaning, distant central planners. To quote a very famous line from Issuance. . . it’s a “wicked banjo!”

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