Education reform effort raises troubling questions

//By Trent England

Recently, I have been able to hear a variety of viewpoints about Common Core Standards for education. Depending on who you talk with, Common Core is either a federal scheme to dictate curriculum nationwide or it is a state-driven effort to enhance accountability in public education.

There are two important questions about most every policy proposal. First is about the policy itself – in this case, how best to create and maintain accountability in education. The second question has to do with processes, structures and institutions – and with Common Core Standards the question is what happens to representative government and to the relationship between states and the federal government.

Many education experts are enamored with Common Core, seeing the new standards as a way to expose poor performance in the status quo, to pull up states with low standards and to “shake things up.” On the other hand, those who also ask the second question – about processes and such – seem quite a bit more skeptical.

The concern centers on unlocking a door that would make it dramatically easier for the federal government to dictate, rather than simply voice support for, this set of standards. The Obama administration already made adoption of Common Core a factor in their Race To The Top program (a grant competition where states competed to please unelected federal officials in order to receive back some taxpayer dollars). A coalition of scholars has written against a Common Core, and Heartland Institute and Washington Policy Center have both raised questions.

In 1987, the Supreme Court of the United States decided South Dakota vs. Dole, holding that Congress can use federal spending to bribe states to make policy decisions that are outside of the direct power of Congress. So long as that case defines the (lack of) limits on federal power, Congress could make all federal education dollars – or highway dollars, or Medicaid funding – contingent on adopting Common Core.

The other problem with Common Core deals with representative governance. In Washington, we have seen this problem with Puget Sound Regional Council. PSRC is made up of elected officials – elected to other offices (city councils, county councils, etc.). No one is elected to serve on PSRC itself, which means that even as members of the council can stand up and claim a mandate from voters, no voter is able in any real way to control PSRC. It is not a representative body. It is not a body that is responsible, in a direct or meaningful way, to citizens.

Common Core was created by state officials, true. But no one was elected to write or be responsible for these standards. The connection to voters is attenuated beyond the point that it really matters. Today, the standards may be innocuous, even an improvement for many states. But where the standards go tomorrow is something citizens will have no say about.

Trent England is vice president of policy at Evergreen Freedom Foundation.

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