Viewed from Washington, D.C., opposition to the Common Core State Standards Initiative still seems as small as the biblical cloud that ariseth out of the sea, no larger than a man’s hand. Soon, however, it will fill a significant portion of the political sky.
The Common Core represents the ideas of national organizations of governors and school officials about what and how children should learn. It is designed to advance in primary and secondary education the progressive agenda of centralization and uniformity.
Understandably, proponents of the Common Core want its nature and purpose to remain as cloudy as possible. Hence they say it is a “state-led,” “voluntary” initiative to merely guide education with “standards” neither written nor mandated by Washington, which would never, ever “prescribe” a national curriculum. A candid characterization would reveal yet another Obama administration indifference to legality.
The 1965 Elementary and Secondary Education Act, the original federal intrusion into this state and local responsibility, said “nothing in this act” shall authorize any federal official to “mandate, direct or control” school curriculums. The 1970 General Education Provisions Act stipulates that “no provision of any applicable program shall be construed to authorize any” federal official “to exercise any direction, supervision or control over the curriculum, program of instruction” or selection of “instructional materials by any” school system. The 1979 law creating the Department of Education forbids it from exercising “any direction, supervision or control over the curriculum” of any school system. The ESEA, as amended, says no federal funds “may be used … to endorse, approve or sanction any curriculum designed to be used in” grades K-12.
Nevertheless, what begins with mere national standards must breed ineluctable pressure to standardize educational content. Targets, guidelines and curriculum models all induce conformity in instructional materials. Washington already is encouraging the alignment of the GED, SAT and ACT tests with the Common Core. By a feedback loop, these tests will beget more curriculum conformity. All of this will take a toll on parental empowerment, and none of this will escape the politicization of learning like that already rampant in higher education.
Leave aside the abundant, often learned and frequently convincing criticisms of the writing, literature and math standards. Even satisfactory national standards must extinguish federalism’s creativity: At any time, it is more likely there will be half a dozen innovative governors than one creative federal education bureaucracy. And the mistakes made by top-down federal reforms are continental mistakes.
The Obama administration has purchased states’ obedience by partially conditioning waivers from onerous federal regulations and receipt of federal largess on the states’ embrace of the Common Core. Although 45 states and the District of Columbia have struck this bargain, some are reconsidering and more will do so as opposition mounts.
Many proponents seem to deem it beneath their dignity to engage opponents’ arguments, preferring to caricature opponents as political primitives and to dismiss them. Bill Gates: “It’s ludicrous to think that multiplication in Alabama and multiplication in New York are really different.”
What is ludicrous is Common Core proponents’ disdain related to this fact: Fifty years of increasing Washington inputs into education has coincided with disappointing cognitive outputs from schools. Is it not imprudent to apply to education the federal touch that has given us healthcare.gov?
The rise of opposition to the Common Core illustrates three healthy aspects of today’s politics. First, new communication technologies enable energized minorities to force new topics onto the political agenda. Second, the uprising of local communities against state capitals, the nation’s capital and various muscular organizations (e.g., the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation) demonstrates that although the public agenda is malleable, a sturdy portion of the public is not. Third, political dishonesty has swift consequences. Opposition to the Common Core is surging because Washington is saying, in effect: “If you like your local control of education, you can keep it. Period.”
George F. Will is a syndicated columnist for The Washington Post (firstname.lastname@example.org).