A strongly-worded statement from Education Secretary Arne Duncan last week revealed his distaste for federalism, since it undermines his goal of having all states agree to one set of education standards.

South Carolina legislators are considering a bill to block the state from implementing the Common Core, a list of what children in each grade should know in math and language arts. This sounds simple and blasé enough, but it is not. More on that in a bit.

Gov. Nikki Haley sent the bill’s sponsor a letter declaring her support for the repeal.

“Just as we should not relinquish control of education to the Federal government, neither should we cede it to the consensus of other states,” Haley wrote. “Our children deserve swift action and the passage of a clean resolution that will allow our state to reclaim control of and responsibility for educating South Carolinians.”

Duncan has said little to defend the Common Core to this point. South Carolina’s initiative, however, seems to have threatened the administration’s plans enough to have generated a striking response.

“The idea that the Common Core standards are nationally-imposed is a conspiracy theory in search of a conspiracy,” Duncan said in a statement last Thursday. He also implied that states differing from the administration’s party line would be subject to discrimination in federal education grants and waivers.

At the center of this controversy lies the administration’s preference for having the executive branch control national policy. Every Obama administration initiative in education has required that states adopt the Core, such as for Race to the Top grants, reauthorizing No Child Left Behind (the largest federal education law), and NCLB waivers. Forty-five states, including South Carolina, adopted the standards under Race to the Top pressure in 2010.

And there are obvious-sounding benefits to such a policy. When there is one system for learning in the country, you can compare every fourth grader with every other fourth grader along the same scale. No more mucking around with different curriculums and tests. When there is one system, a family can move classrooms mid-year and not have their children enter a classroom that may be a full year ahead or behind the school they left.

But these are small benefits compared to the dangers. Here’s why.

First, having the U.S. Education Department fund or monitor curriculum is flat-out illegal. That’s what the Core has so far entailed, despite Duncan’s self-deception about that fact. Given the Obama administration’s disregard for law, this should not be surprising, but it’s still abhorrent and destructive to liberty.

Second, the Brookings Institution has studied the Core and concluded it will do nothing to improve American education. At the same time, estimates suggest merely switching over to the Core will cost states $16 billion. Hm—spending $16 billion to waste time and energy? That's the story of the Obama administration (just keep increasing the amount).

Third, centralization often sounds neat and tidy, but ignores the minor fact that people themselves are not neat and tidy. Humans are diverse. One set of education standards does not fit every state, school, or child. It can’t possibly. Forced sameness reduces creativity and freedom, which are essential to intelligence and a thriving economy.

Haley understands the foundations and importance of retaining U.S. federalism. Duncan does not. This is one episode in an ongoing saga that allows Americans to view and consider the consequences of central control.

Joy Pullmann is managing editor of School Reform News and an education research fellow at The Heartland Institute.

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