- The Washington Times - Tuesday, August 10, 2010

A “quiet revolution” is under way in the United States. Little by little, without much argument or dissent - indeed, with the cheerful complicity of a large, bipartisan group of legislators and policymakers - the American way of education is shifting from towns, cities and states toward the federal government and centralization.

“Quiet revolution” isn’t some conspiratorial conservative’s description for the remorseless shift of power to federal bureaucrats. The metaphor comes courtesy of U.S. Education Secretary Arne Duncan, one of the revolution’s main architects.

Mr. Duncan spoke to reporters and teachers at the National Press Club on July 27. In announcing the 19 finalists for the second round of the federal government’s $4.35 billion Race to the Top grant competition, he lauded “a growing sense that a quiet revolution is under way in our homes and schools, classrooms and communities.” He also made some extraordinary claims about the Obama administration’s accomplishments and goals.

“If we have learned one thing from [No Child Left Behind], it’s that one-size-fits-all remedies generally don’t work,” Mr. Duncan said. “Rather than driving reform at the local level, NCLB fed long-standing frustration with federal overreaching.”

Mr. Duncan can hardly be faulted for putting the best possible spin on the administration’s education policies. And his criticism of President George W. Bush’s signal education policy was well-warranted. At the heart of the No Child Left Behind Act is a mandate: 100 percent student proficiency in reading and math by 2014. The mandate is enforced through high-stakes tests and harsh penalties. The results have been mostly predictable: States dumbed down their standards and redefined “proficiency” to avoid the law’s penalties, which include mass firings and state takeovers of schools.

But the quiet education revolution of President Obama and Mr. Duncan is just a different form of federal overreach. If the administration really believed the lesson of No Child Left Behind meant rejecting one-size-fits-all solutions, it wouldn’t embrace the Common Core State Standards Initiative.

It’s true, as Mr. Duncan says, that the Common Core frameworks are not technically a federal mandate. They’re the work of the National Governors Association and the Council of Chief State School Officers. But what Mr. Duncan didn’t say is that any state that refuses to adopt the standards would be eliminated from the second round of Race to the Top. And he made no mention of Mr. Obama’s vow to make $14.5 billion in federal Title I aid to low-income, urban school districts contingent upon states adopting the Common Core frameworks.

That’s a mandate, for all practical purposes. Lawmakers in cash-strapped states aren’t likely to let principles jeopardize their shot at a huge amount of federal tax dollars already extracted from their taxpayers. No surprise, then, that more than 30 states and the District of Columbia have adopted the “voluntary” standards. So far, only Alaska and Texas, which opted out from the beginning, and Minnesota, which participated in developing the frameworks but has since had second thoughts about the math standards, have said no to national standards.

Mr. Obama’s blueprint for education may not appear as ham-fisted as previous federal efforts, but it’s no less meddlesome. Mr. Duncan argues that the Bush administration preferred to punish failure rather than recognize success, but the Obama and Bush approaches aren’t so different. Like Mr. Bush, Mr. Obama emphasizes turning around failing schools with mandated, highly prescriptive intervention. Like Mr. Bush, Mr. Obama would use standardized test scores to evaluate student performance. Like Mr. Bush, Mr. Obama would have a federal agency certify teachers.

Mr. Duncan says the Obama administration’s goal is a “smarter, tighter federal role” in education. Smarter doesn’t necessarily mean smaller. Although the methods may be sophisticated, the results are the same: More federal intervention means less local control and accountability, far fewer choices, and little or no improvement in academic achievement.

This “quiet revolution” isn’t about better educational options for American children. It’s about control, pure and simple.

Ben Boychuk is managing editor of the Heartland Institute’s School Reform News.