If the feds pay, the states will play

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Don’t worry, Governor Patrick, Lieutenant Governor Murray and Massachusetts Education Secretary Reville have repeatedly said. If at any point we realize that the final testing products being developed by national consortium groups are not as rigorous as the MCAS, we can simply back out.

We can simply back out, even after spending a big chunk the of $250 million in Race to the Top funds to train teachers and buy textbooks in line with the new national standards. We can back out even though we, as a state, have committed on paper to adopting the national assessments.


Then there is the question of whether national standards can realistically be considered voluntary with federal money in the balance. I suppose you could say that many federal programs are voluntary. Aspects of the federal highway, transit, and other programs might be considered voluntary but the promise of federal funding changes the dynamics of any policy conversation, because taking off the way-too-comfortable, oversized theoretical hat, any policy person with a grain of practicality knows that the politics of funding overrides even the most sensible legislative minds.

On the question of national standards and assessments, consider Catherine Gewertz’ recent Ed Week blog regarding the worries about the cost of implementing national standards. Sure, that’s a concern, especially when no one has done a basic cost estimate, so it is all a matter of conjecture. Given the economy and the likely difficult path forward for the economy over the next couple of years, that’s not a small matter.

To allay those fears, the Obama administration talked with publishers of education textbooks and materials.

The concern about paying for the implementation of the common standards ricocheted around the room yesterday where the school division of the Association of American Publishers was holding its annual fall meeting on Capitol Hill. It was an intimate affair; only about 40 publishing executives listening to speakers outlining the education landscape. One focus was the common standards, an area that is wide open for development of curriculum and instructional materials. And big bucks to be made. If, that is, there is money to pay for the stuff that gets developed.

When asked if there is any federal money available to pay for implementation, professional development, and (I am sure the publishers were thinking) textbooks and materials, Roberto Rodriguez, who advises President Obama on education,

acknowledged that the cost of professional development necessary to make common standards and assessments work the way they should is “huge,” and said that the administration is committed to “recalibrating” the Elementary and Secondary Education Act so that federal funding helps support the common standards and assessments. But the President knows that it will “take much more than that,” Rodriguez said, so the administration is looking into public-private partnerships and the philanthropic community for support as well, and will encourage states to “dedicate resources in a serious way” to the new standards and tests when they are making decisions about funding.

Philanthropic interests will certainly include the Gates Foundation, which has been joined at the hip with the Obama administration on creating a single set of national standards and at most a couple of assessments. Asking states to fund this stuff is going to fall on deaf ears in the current climate. And the incoming Congress will lasso much of the Obama administration’s discretionary education funding to the ground.

With no money in state budgets and no new discretionary federal money for education, where does the Obama administration go to fund the implementation of its grand national plans?

Simply put, the federal executive branch is going to try and find any which way to convince Congress to let it use ESEA money to drive “state-led” reforms such as the national standards. And that’s the bright red line that we will all be looking at. Because such a move would essentially make the national standards into federal standards.

After all, no state, Massachusetts included, will politically be able to turn down the “opportunity” for federal funding. Remember the frenzy in many states simply to access Race to the Top funds. If Congress allows the administration to use ESEA money this way, those who say that we can pull up stakes and pull out anytime from the national standards, while they can claim to be theoretically correct, will be proven, in practice, very foolish.