Well before the March 10, 2010, release of the national Common Core (CC) standards for K-12 math and English, the Obama administration was pressuring states to commit to them if they wanted to compete for a share of $4.35 billion in Race to the Top funds set aside from the federal stimulus.
All the while, the Washington-based CC collaborators - the National Governors Association’s Best Practices Center, the Council of Chief State School Officers, and Achieve Inc. (a remnant of the failed national standards push of the 1990s) - were issuing regular assurances these curriculum standards would be totally “voluntary” and state-led.
Now, amid mounting evidence of the Common Core’s serious legal, fiscal and qualitative flaws, some brave leaders in several of the 45 states that committed to the national standards are trying to de-commit. It may be difficult to unscramble the egg, but if the CC were truly voluntary, wouldn’t you think a state could at least debate withdrawal without incurring the wrath of Obama Education Secretary Arne Duncan?
In response to a legislative proposal in South Carolina to halt CC implementation, Mr. Duncan issued a recent press release deriding the idea that CC standards are “nationally imposed,” calling it “a conspiracy theory in search of a conspiracy.” He took a swipe at the Palmetto State’s lowering to mid-range its previously toughest-in-the-nation English and math standards, while giving no credit for the state’s winning Fordham Foundation plaudits for having the finest history standards of all 50 states.
It is unclear who, if anyone, has labeled the Common Core a conspiracy, but federal pressure to implement it is plainer than ever after Mr. Duncan’s blast. President Obama’s announced “blueprint” for reauthorizing No Child Left Behind (NCLB) would effectively require all states to embrace his monolithic model of “college- and career-ready” standards. Moreover, as part of its general effort to seize lawmaking authority from Congress, the administration is conditioning NCLB enforcement waivers on states’ fully embracing the Common Core.
The bid supported by Gov. Nikki Haley to restore local control of schools in South Carolina may have made Mr. Duncan surlier than a jilted Chicago mob boss because it comes amid a slew of evidence the Common Core is shaping up as the costliest, least-productive boondoggle since the LBJ-era Elementary and Secondary Education Act, passed in 1965.
The Brookings Institution’s respected education scholar, Tom Loveless, recently presented research demolishing the contention that national standards will raise achievement appreciably. Brookings is no tool of a vast right-wing conspiracy, nor is The Washington Post, whose veteran education columnist, Jay Mathews, concurred with Mr. Loveless in a Feb. 22 piece and congratulated Virginia for snubbing the CC and preserving its own standards.
Also on Feb. 22, the Boston-based Pioneer Institute published a study showing taxpayers in the states already adopting the Common Core would have to shell out at least $16 billion over the next seven years to reorganize their schools to conform to the national model. That is a hefty price to pay for scant prospective return and the loss of freedom to innovate at the state and local level.
Finally, is it all even legal? On Feb. 9, the Pioneer Institute released a white paper by a former general counsel and deputy general counsel of the U.S. Department of Education pointing out that since 1965, Congress has written into three laws strict prohibitions against federal officials directing, supervising or controlling the curriculum of any school or school system.
Bob Eitel and Kent Talbert concluded that if the Common Core and the linked national tests, which the feds are bankrolling to the tune of $330 million, take full effect, states are likely to become “little more than administrative agents for a nationalized K-12 program of instruction. … The Department [of Education] has simply paid others to do that which it is forbidden to do.”
In the Feb. 24 edition of The Chronicle of Higher Education (again, no right-wing organ), Peter Wood concluded nationalization “will dim the bright spots and subdue the sense of local control that is vital to reform,” noting Massachusetts “has conspicuously lowered its standards in order to qualify for the federal bribe.”
Even if Mr. Duncan and the fans of Obama-Ed squelch the uprising in South Carolina, the fallout could spark further revolts across the nation. Maybe there is yet hope for keeping control of education closest to the people affected: the nation’s families.
Robert Holland is senior fellow for education policy with the Heartland Institute.