A coalition of right-leaning education reformers have recently and sharply broken with the growing federal influence Republicans and Democrats have broadly supported in recent decades. This edusphere tussle connects education to the wider debate Americans (evinced most loudly by Tea Party supporters) have rejoined on the scope and centralization of government power and how it shapes American identity.
The debate over "Common Core" standards recently spattered across education blogs like so many paintballs on a crowded field, yesterday evoking a response from Education Secretary Arne Duncan. The Common Core State Standards are a list of skills and ideas students at every grade level must encounter in states adopting them. They essentially outline the scope, main topics, and learning goals for each grade in language arts, math, history, science, and "technical subjects."
"We have not and will not prescribe a national curriculum. I want to repeat that," he said, a statement which provoked laughter from the audience at a forum hosted by the National Center on Education and the Economy.
The federal government has very little statutory or Constitutional authority over K-12 education. So, as with highway speed limits, Congress and the executive branch have taken to carrots and sticks shaped like money bags to bribe states into doing the feds' bidding. No Child Left Behind, shepherded through by President George W. Bush and Senator Ted Kennedy, is just one of the latest examples of the far-reaching education laws passed by Congress going back to 1965 when increased federal attention to education became part of LBJ's War on Poverty. While No Child Left Behind, as well as President Obama's Race to the Top funds in the federal stimulus package, have greatly expanded federal education dollars -- they've also greatly expanded the number of hoops scholls must go through to get those funds.
The same possibilities for centralization exist withing the now-voluntary "Common Core" standards 43 states and Washington, D.C. have adapted. But, as the Obama administration and private financiers like the Gates Foundation seek to tie these standards also to federal dollars, oversight, and national curriculum development, the nation's antifederalist education reformers reared back, publishing an "antimanifesto" strongly condemning the movement.
Until now, education reform has served as a wide label for conservatives and liberals, few of whom can close their eyes to a tripling of federal education spending with no improved test scores, union monstrosities like rubber rooms, and general national stagnation. Nearly any change in recent decades has equaled "education reform." Now, this coalition is forcing legislators, wonks, educators, and citizens to rethink not just policy--like vouchers, charters, collective bargaining curbs--but principles: can one curriculum and standards really fit each teacher, student, class, and family in the country?
Do the federal government and its lackeys offer more collective wisdom than states, districts, and families? Or do the last 40 years of centralizing policy to little effect but trillions spent indicate, perhaps, we should turn around?
Joy Pullmann is the managing editor of School Reform News at the Heartland Institute.