Defining Ideas

Against the Common Core

Thursday, September 4, 2014
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Barbara Kelley

Editor’s note: This essay has been adapted from the testimony of Williamson M. Evers before the Rules & Reference Committee of the Ohio House of Representatives, August 19, 2014.

The question I would like to address is: Do the Common Core national curriculum-content standards undermine “competitive federalism,” which is a feature of our Madisonian system of federalism?

First, I want to discuss federalism under our Constitution as designed by James Madison. What is federalism? U.S. Supreme Court Justice Anthony Kennedy wrote in a recent case that the allocation of powers as set forth in the Constitution sets legal “boundaries” between the federal government and the states and provides a way for each of them to maintain their “integrity.” But, just as importantly, having a system of federalism “secures to citizens the liberties that derive from the diffusion of sovereign power.”

Thus, there is vertical federalism between the states and the federal government, and there is horizontal federalism among, for example, water districts, countries, cities, school districts, and among states.

We can see that the debate about federalism continues in America. In another case, the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision on ObamaCare, the court said that the federal government cannot use the threat of cutting off federal spending to coerce states into expanding Medicaid. (This decision may or may not apply to Common Core, but it shows the continuing importance of federalism.)

Now, I want to turn to the closely related matter of competitive federalism. Competitive federalism is horizontal competition among jurisdictions. We know that it works in education at the inter-district level. Economist Caroline Hoxby studied metropolitan areas with many school districts (like Boston) vs. metropolitan areas contained within one large district (like Miami or Los Angeles). She found that student performance is better in areas with competing multiple districts, where parents at the same income level can move—at the margin—from one locality to another nearby, in search of a better education for their children.

We have seen competitive federalism work in education at the inter-state level. Back in the 1950s, Mississippi and North Carolina were at the same low level. Over the years, North Carolina tried a number of educational experiments and moved well ahead of Mississippi. We have likewise seen Massachusetts move up over the years from mediocre to stellar (though under Common Core, Massachusetts is sinking back again).

We know that national standards are not needed for success in international comparisons. Back in the 1970s, the United States and Canada were both in the middling, mediocre ranks internationally. Both countries are rather similar in culture and level of commercial and industrial development. The United States has continued to wallow in mediocrity, even as we centralize K-12 education. Yet Canada (which has more competitive federalism in education than the United States and has no Ministry of Education in its central government) has climbed into the ranks of advanced nations in academic performance.  

Why is this important? Because one of the pillars of the case for national curriculum-content standards is that they are necessary for individuals to succeed in a global marketplace and that all top-performing countries have them. The case of Canada refutes that. 

Let’s turn to the background of the Common Core. Content standards, tests, and curriculum that had been provided by the states—thus far—will now because of Common Core be provided by federally-endorsed national curriculum-content standards, federally-funded tests, and curriculum (some of it federally funded) based on those tests and curriculum-content standards. 

The Common Core national standards had their origins in several Washington, D.C.-centric lobbying and policy-advocacy groups—namely, the National Governors Association (NGA), the Council of Chief State School Officers (CCSSO), and Achieve Inc. Shortly after the Obama administration came to power, it adopted and endorsed the national standards. It used competitive grants to coerce states into adopting Common Core. It paid for Common Core national tests and intervened in the test-creation process. It created a panel to oversee and monitor the national tests. It granted states waivers from the burdens of No Child Left Behind (NCLB)—conditional on continued adherence to Common Core or a federally-approved alternative.

Central to the thinking (and rhetoric) of the advocates of Common Core on education reform was the idea that state performance standards were already on a downward slide and that, without nationalization, standards would inexorably continue on a “race to the bottom.” The name given to the Obama administration’s signature school reform effort, the Race to the Top program (RttT), reflects this belief. The idea is that to prevent states from following their supposed natural dynamic of a race to the bottom, the federal government needs to step in and lead a race to the top.

I would disagree. While providers of public education certainly face the temptation to do what might look like taking the easy way out by letting academic standards slip, there is also countervailing pressure in the direction of higher standards (especially, as long as there are competing standards in other states).

If policymakers and education officials let content standards slip, low standards will damage the state’s reputation for having a trained workforce. Such a drop in standards will even damage the policymakers’ own reputations.

In 2007, the Thomas B. Fordham Institute looked empirically at state performance standards over time in a study called The Proficiency Illusion. The study showed that while states had a variety of performance standards (as would be expected in a federal system), the supposed “race to the bottom” was not happening. The proponents of the Common Core wrong in their claims that state performance standards were inevitably and everywhere on a downward slide.

Why is this important? Because the other case for national curriculum-content standards is that without nationalization there will be a race to bottom and that only national standards can reverse a supposedly already-existing “race to the bottom.” But the facts refute this. This topples the other principal argument for national standards.

To finance its Race to the Top program, the U.S. Department of Education took discretionary stimulus money that could be used as conditional grants, and then turned a portion of that money into a competitive grant program. It used the grants to encourage states to adopt the national standards. Policy analyst Michael Petrilli aptly called inducements to adopt the standards “the carrot that feels like a stick.” The department also paid for national consortia to develop national tests aligned with the national curriculum–content standards.

The administration created another inducement in the form of No Child Left Behind waivers. In return for adopting the national standards or a federally approved alternative, states could escape NCLB sanctions for not making timely gains in student achievement. U.S. Education Secretary Arne Duncan went beyond what the law allows, by substituting the Obama administration’s favored education reforms (including national curriculum-content standards and tests) for NCLB’s accountability measures. I would add that the new accountability systems under the waivers can all too easily hide deficiencies in the performance of children in previously closely watched sub-groups and may weaken incentives to improve performance of those children.

To some extent, federal officials have commandeered state curriculum-content standards and tests and substituted national standards and tests; to some extent, some state officials embraced the national standards-and-testing cartel as a relief from political pressure within their state and a relief from competitive pressure from other states. In any case, national standards and tests will change curriculum content, homogenize what is taught, and profoundly alter the structure of American K-12 public education. 

Nationalizing standards and tests would, according to this analysis, eliminate them as differentiated school-reform instruments that could be used by states in competition over educational attainment among the states. Sonny Perdue, governor of Georgia at the time Common Core was created, did not like it when the low-performing students of his state were compared with students in other states that had different standards from Georgia’s. He became the lead governor in bringing the NGA into the national standards effort.

So, Yes, Common Core does undermine “competitive federalism.” Indeed, in part, it was designed to do so.

Federalism is not only distinction from and rivalry between the federal government and the states; it is also rivalry among the states and among local governments within the states. As economist Richard McKenzie writes, the Founders sought to disperse power “among many different and competing governments—at the federal, state, and local levels.”

The insight of competitive federalism is that fifty-one state school boards are better than a single federal Executive-branch office. Fifteen-thousand local school boards are better than either fifty-one state school boards or a single federal office. As political scientist Thomas Dye puts it, “intergovernmental competition” was seen by the Founders as an “auxiliary precaution” against the “monopoly abuse of power by a single centralized government.”

Competitive federalism encourages innovation, allows movement between jurisdictions that enhances liberty, and permits a better match between policies and voter preferences. Common Core’s national uniformity runs counter to competitive federalism.

Let’s turn to Alexis de Tocqueville, the most famous observer of American society in our history and see what he can tell us about national education standards. Tocqueville is famous for his portrait of nineteenth-century America and his philosophic insights on why the American society has flourished—and also where it might go wrong. It is worth reminding ourselves what some of Tocqueville’s insights were. Once we do, we can consider the current nationalization of K-12 public-school curriculum, with Tocqueville’s insights in mind.

One of Tocqueville’s major insights was that Americans have benefited from popular participation in the large number of churches, charities, clubs, and voluntary associations in our country, as well as in state and local governments, which stand between the individual and the national government in Washington, D.C.

In essence, Tocqueville believed that the civic health of America depended on popular participation in entities like associations to create and maintain religious, private, or charter schools, as well as in local authorities like school districts with fully-empowered schools boards. Such activity fosters civic virtue and “habits of the heart” and encourages everyday citizens to take on necessary social tasks that in pre-modern society lowly subjects were not allowed to undertake, but were instead the duty of the aristocracy.

When Tocqueville described nineteenth-century American society he spoke, for example, of township school committees that were deeply rooted in their local communities. In those days, state control of local public education took the form of an annual report sent by the township committee to the state capital. There was no national control.

Large sums (much of it taxed from laborers and farmers) were spent by these school committees, and their efforts reflected, Tocqueville thought, a widespread American desire to provide basic schooling as a route to opportunity and advancement. He admired the fact that in self-activating America, one might easily chance upon farmers, who had not waited for official permission from above, but were putting aside their plows “to deliberate upon the project of a public school.”

At the same time, Tocqueville observed in European countries that activities like schooling that had formerly been part of the work of guilds, churches, municipalities, and the like were being taken over by the national government of those countries.

Tocqueville feared that if either Americans neglected their participation in associations or local governments or Europeans lost their intermediate entities to the national governments, the tendency would be toward a loss of a liberty and a surrender to a soft despotism.

In Democracy in America, Tocqueville described how in Europe “the prerogatives of the central power” were increasing every day and making the individual “weaker, more subordinate, and more precarious.”Once, he said, there had been “secondary powers” that represented local interests and administered local matters. Local judiciaries, local privileges, the freedoms of towns, provincial autonomy, local charities—all were gone or going. The national central government, he wrote, “no longer puts up with an intermediary between it and the citizens.”

Tocqueville said that, in Europe, education, like charity, “has become a national affair.” The national government receives or even takes “the child from the arms of his mother” and turns the child over to “the agents” of the national government.

In nineteenth-century Europe, the national governments already were infusing sentiments in the young and supplying their ideas. “Uniformity reigns” in education, Tocqueville said. Intellectual diversity was disappearing. He feared that both Europe and America were moving toward “centralization” and “despotism.”

Tocqueville believed that in non-aristocratic societies (like America), there is strong potential for the national government to become immense and influential, standing above the citizens, not just as a mighty and coercive power, but also as a guardian and tutor. Tocqueville maintained that religion (as a moral anchor) as well as involvement in local government (such as school districts) and voluntary organizations could help America counter the tendency toward tyranny.

Joseph Califano, President Jimmy Carter’s Health, Education and Welfare Secretary, articulated Tocqueville-style concerns about a centralization of schooling: “Any set of test questions that the federal government prescribed should surely be suspect as a first step toward a national curriculum. … [Carried to its full extent,] national control of curriculum is a form of national control of ideas.”

Unless Common Core is stopped, its officials will dismantle what remains of state and local decision-making on classroom lessons and replace it with a new system of national tests and a national curriculum. This policy is Tocqueville’s nightmare: As in Europe, education “has become a national affair” and Common Core is the vehicle for imposing in America a one-size-fits-all centralization like that administered by the National Ministry of Education in France.

Federalism, including horizontal inter-jurisdictional competition, allows policies better matched to needs and preferences of voters. It allows individuals and families to “vote with their feet”—to move to jurisdictions that they like, where the authorities don’t act counter to their liberties and preferences.

Competitive federalism allows experimentation by alternative jurisdictions. One state can try one policy, while another state tries something else. This is why it is called the “laboratory of democracy.”

This feature of federalism is what brought Massachusetts, Indiana, California and several other states to have the outstanding curriculum-content standards that they had before the Common Core. This is the feature of federalism that facilitates an exit strategy from Common Core: It allows states that are leaving Common Core to repeal and replace the national curriculum-content standards with outstanding pre-Common Core state standards. This can be done on an interim basis, while those states design their own replacement standards for the long run. Then the rivalry that takes place under competitive federalism will go back to work to the benefit of teachers, students, and everyone who wants a well-educated citizenry—and also everyone who wants to have the freedoms that are protected by the U.S. Constitution’s Madisonian system of federalism.