The Core Conundrum

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Yesterday (February 23) Secretary of Education Arne Duncan called criticisms of the Common Core State Standards, “a conspiracy theory in search of a conspiracy.” He is referring to the idea that the supposedly “voluntary” K-12 curricular standards now adopted by 45 states and the District of Columbia are, in fact, a national standard in everything but name.

Why should the Secretary care whether the Common Core is characterized one way or the other? Isn’t the result the same either way?

No. The reason it matters is that the federal government does not have authorization under federal law to impose a curriculum on the nation’s schools. The states individually and local school districts have the power to decide what public schools will teach. It’s a distinction pregnant with consequences. If the Common Core State Standards turn out to be a stealth nationalization of the school curriculum they will always certainly be struck down by the courts.

A few weeks ago, the Boston-based Pioneer Institute released a white paper arguing that the Common Core Standards are in indeed a usurpation of the authority of the states over public education. In The Road to a National Curriculum: The Legal Aspects of the Common Core Standards, Race to the Top, and Conditional Waivers, Robert S. Eitel and Kent D. Talbert recount the considerable barriers enacted by Congress over the years to prevent the federal government from involving itself in decisions over the content of elementary- and secondary-school programs. (Talbert is the former General Counsel for the U.S. Department of Education [2006-9] and Eitel was Deputy General Counsel at the same time.)

Before 1965, the federal government more or less left the matter entirely to the states, but that year President Johnson championed legislation, the Elementary and Secondary School Act (ESEA) that put the federal government in the business of funding portions of school districts’ budgets. The framers of the bill, aware that one thing leads to another, put in stiff statutory limitations that prohibited federal involvement with the K-12 curriculum.

Lots of federal legislation affecting the schools has followed over the years but all of it has stuck to the principle that the curriculum is a no-go area for federal authorities. The General Education Provisions Act (GEPA), the Department of Education Organization Act, and the No Child Left Behind Act were solidly aligned on this point. As GEPA put it:

No provision of any applicable program shall be construed to authorize any department, agency, officer, or employee of the United States to exercise any direction, supervision, or control over the curriculum, program of instruction, administration, or personnel of any educational institution, school, or school system…

There are no acts of Congress that create significant loopholes in these prohibitions, and none that offer up a contrary principle inviting the federal government to step into curricular matters.

These laws have been a source of frustration for would-be education reformers, left and right, who often have often been drawn to the idea that with the benefit of a little federal government muscle they could, at last, cut through the seaweed that has so far choked every effort to reform the nation’s public schools.

The Obama administration, facing the same legal obstacles as all its predecessors, chose a novel tactic. It orchestrated a program under the auspices of National Governors Association Center for Best Practices (NGA Center) and the Council of Chief State School Officers (CCSSO) which proposed standards that the states would be free to adopt. But “free” came with some sweeteners. The Race to the Top dangled hundreds of millions of dollars among those states that chose to adopt the Common Core. As for those states that chose not to…they face some interesting consequences too. I wrote about this last year in “The Core Between the States.”

Eitel and Talbert’s nineteen-page analysis of the legal standing of the Common Core State Standards mounts a powerful case that the Obama administration has overstepped itself. The Road to a National Curriculum does its most devastating work by quoting from Department of Education documents that lay out in plain language the effort to use federal resources to achieve results prohibited by statute. One such document, for example, explains, “The goal of common K-12 standard is to replace the existing patchwork of State standards that results in unequal expectations based on geography.”

Whether you think that is a worthy goal is beside the point. Over the last fifty years Congress has repeatedly told the executive branch of the U.S. government “keep out” of the school curriculum.

As it happens, I don’t think it is such a worthy goal. Nationalization of the K-12 curriculum seems more likely to impose stultifying mediocrity than to respect the power of local districts and the states to innovate. Nationalization will dim the bright spots and subdue the sense of local control that is vital to reform. What the Race to the Top advocates call “unequal expectations based on geography” is really our basic freedom to experiment and our right to determine for ourselves what a good education should be. The unhappy effects of the “voluntary” Common Core State Standards coupled with the Race to the Top are on display in Massachusetts, which has conspicuously lowered its standards in order to qualify for the federal bribe.

But setting that aside, the Pioneer Institute in releasing the Road to a National Curriculum has fanned the flames of growing resistance. The immediate case, which provoked Secretary Duncan’s reflections on conspiracy theories, is legislation (S 604) pending in South Carolina that would block further implementation of the Common Core State Standards. Duncan presumably wants to scotch this idea before other states start to think that “voluntary” actually means voluntary.

The South Carolina legislators seem a bit upset that the Race to the Top adoption process bypassed them, even though they are expected to pay 90 percent of the costs of the Common Core State Standards. Hearings in other states could stumble over the same stone. It isn’t as if South Carolina is trying to protect an especially slothful approach to public education against the imposition of a more demanding federal regimen. As in Massachusetts, the opposite seems true. The Fordham Institute (generally pro-Common Core) last year ranked South Carolina’s history standards as best in the country. If South Carolina could elevate its state standards for U.S. history, it could, as Texas has done, also craft English language arts and math standards that are much higher than Common Core’s.

That’s the sort of thing Secretary Duncan dismisses as “conspiracy theory in search of a conspiracy.” His response was noted by Education Week and in less good humor by the Cato Institute: ‘Say I Threatened You Again, And You’ll Really Be Sorry!’ The Secretary went on to say:

I hope South Carolina lawmakers will heed the voices of teachers who supported South Carolina’s decision to stop lowering academic standards and set a higher bar for success. And I hope lawmakers will continue to support the state’s decision to raise standards, with the goal of making every child college- and career-ready in today’s knowledge economy.

I don’t know what evidence the Secretary sees to support the idea that South Carolina was “lowering standards” until the Common Core came along.

Battles in South Carolina have been known to start larger conflicts. This could just be the Fort Sumter of the Core Between the States.

Also seen in The Chronicle of Higher Education.