'Incentives' should not be used to advance national curriculum

Chester Finn, a national-standards advocate from the Fordham Institute, recently took to the radio airwaves to defend them. Bill Bennett asked Mr. Finn whether the states that have adopted the Common Core Standards have done so voluntarily, or whether DOE dangled incentives such as increased funding to influence their decision. Mr. Finn responded that so far, it’s all been voluntary.

Well, not exactly.

I called the show and explained to Mr. Finn (and the audience) that DOE tied Race to the Top funding to adoption of the standards – as a practical matter, a state that rejected the standards had no shot at the funding. Mr. Finn conceded that this was correct.

The Race to the Top program has been tinged by subterfuge from the beginning. It emerged not from Congress through the process of deliberating education policy, but rather from the infamous 2009 stimulus bill. That bill gave Department of Education (DOE) $4.35 billion to be used at its discretion – essentially an earmark – and DOE used the money to fund the Race to the Top competition.

It was through that competition that DOE, with no authority from any elected and therefore accountable official, shoved its foot in the door of imposing national standards. Cash-strapped states embraced the Common Core Standards to avoid losing out on millions of federal dollars. But if a state’s schools are subject to national standards, can a national curriculum be far behind? Common standards would seem to necessitate common curricula and common assessments (and DOE is energetically funding the development of both).

Not to worry, Mr. Finn assures, because the statute that created DOE prohibits the agency from directing or controlling curricula. So it does. When Congress first initiated its probably unconstitutional foray into education policy (previously considered the exclusive responsibility of states, localities and parents), it attempted to limit the damage by expressly prohibiting DOE from exercising “any direction, supervision, or control over the curriculum” of any school.

But DOE evades this restriction the old-fashioned way – by controlling the purse strings. DOE doesn’t require the states to adopt the Common Core Standards; it merely withholds money if they don’t. So a state is completely free to tell the feds to take a hike, as long as it’s willing to forgo millions of dollars in school funding. The level of “voluntariness” here is, to say the least, debatable.

Attempting to allay the concerns of state and local officials and parents that the feds are engaged in a power grab, a DOE spokesman actually fed those concerns: “Just for the record: We are for high standards, not national standards and we are for a well-rounded curriculum, not a national curriculum. There is a big difference between funding development of curriculum – which is something we have always done – and mandating a national curriculum – which is something we have never done. And yes – we believe in using incentives to advance our agenda.”

That last sentence confirms that the federal power grab is real. Parents are appropriately concerned that their right to control the education of their children will dissolve under the pressure of federal “incentives” to adopt national standards and national curricula and national assessments.

And if this federalized education policy turns out to be unsatisfactory – as, given the federal government’s track record of running things, it inevitably will – what recourse will parents have? Can they call their local school board, or schedule an appointment with their state legislator? What good will that do, when the problem is created within the depths of a federal bureaucracy, or even worse, by a corporation that created curricula and assessments pursuant to federal contracts that parents don’t even know about?

Unfortunately, many governors – even “conservative” ones such as Indiana Governor Mitch Daniels – do not seem willing to stand up for local control over education. An exception is Texas Governor Rick Perry, who understands the hazards of relinquishing control in pursuit of the almighty dollar: “I will say this very slowly so they will understand it in Washington, D.C.: Texas will fight any attempt by the federal government to take over our school system.”

We need more leaders willing to fight.

Jane Robbins is a senior fellow at Preserve Innocence, an initiative of the American Principles Project.