SUMMARY: The Common Core standards don’t give the federal government control over Alabama’s academic curriculum. The standards were created by the Common Core State Standards Initiative, a coalition created by the National Governors Association and the Council of Chief State School Officers. While the Obama administration has encouraged -– some would say pushed –- states to adopt the standards, the standards themselves are created by member states and are not issued by the U.S. Department of Education.
ANALYSIS: Some critics of Common Core have characterized the push for nationwide standards as an unconstitutional overreach by the federal government.
But there’s a difference between a national initiative and a federal initiative.
The No Child Left Behind Act is a federal initiative. Passed by Congress in 2001, NCLB requires every state to have a school accountability system that revolves around testing students on basic skills and rating schools based on students’ test performance. Had any state failed to set up an accountability system, that state would have faced the loss of federal funds.
NCLB doesn’t prescribe a single set of academic standards for the different states, nor does it prescribe a single test to be used in the accountability system. Since NCLB’s passage, critics have pointed out that it would make sense for all states to adopt a single set of standards, rather than 50 separate standards and multiple tests.
In 2009, the National Governors Association and the Council of Chief State School Officers pooled their resources to create the Common Core State Standards Initiative –- a push to create a single set of standards that could be used by states across the nation. (The NGA represents the governors of all 50 states. The CCSO represents state school superintendents.)
Other state-level organizations, such as the National Association of State Boards of Education and the State Higher Education Executive Officers, also played a role in the Common Core project.
In other words, the Common Core website is correct when it touts the project as a “state-led” initiative. From the beginning, Common Core was created and run by state-level officials working together.
That hasn’t stopped critics from finding a kind of crypto-federalism in the Common Core movement. In interviews earlier this week, state school board members Stephanie Bell and Betty Peters both claimed that the Obama administration is the real force behind Common Core, citing a speech by Education Secretary Arne Duncan as an example of a grander design behind the initiative. They also point to a February speech in which, Bell and Peters claim, President Barack Obama threatened to pull Title I funding from states that don’t comply with Common Core. And finally, critics note that Common Core participation is encouraged in Race to the Top, the federal government’s competitive grant program.
It’s clear that the Obama administration is trying to promote Common Core –- but it’s not at all clear that federal of-ficials have, or ever have had, a strong sway over the content of the Common Core standards.
Common Core is a favored policy under Race to the Top. The Obama administration’s grant program offers additional federal funds to states if their school systems adopt certain policies supported by the administration –- policies including teacher merit pay and charter schools. States that adopted Common Core had a bit of a leg up in the last round of competition for the grants.
Race to the Top is all carrot and no stick. But Obama applied a bit of stick in February, when he suggested in a speech that distribution of Title I funds –- funds designed to bolster high-poverty school districts –- should be tied to the establishment of “college- and career-ready” standards in every school system. A White House press release says that states “may” meet the college-ready requirement by adopting Common Core, though other options would also be possible.
Even so, college-ready standards aren’t required yet. To become reality, Obama’s proposal would have to be incor-porated into a reauthorization or revision of No Child Left Behind. Congress has been mulling NCLB reauthoriza-tion for years, and no one really knows when legislators will act. Now that Obama’s party no longer holds both houses of Congress, it’s looking much less likely that the president’s ideas will make their way into an NCLB reauthorization.
As for Arne Duncan’s Nov. 4 UNESCO speech, it’s true that the education secretary did appear to boast about a federal push to design tests based on Common Core:
“The … game-changer is that states have banded together in large consortia to develop a new generation of assessments aligned with the states' Common Core standards,” Duncan said in the speech. “In September, I announced the results of the department's $350 million Race to the Top assessment completion to design this next generation of assessments.”
Duncan goes on to note that “millions of schoolchildren” will be using Common Core-based tests by 2015.
The quote sounds as though Duncan orchestrated the adoption of Common Core, but in fact, he’s engaging in a bit of shorthand.
Race to the Top offered $350 million in competitive grants to encourage states to draw up a new generation of standardized tests. The competition was open only to groups that represented multi-state partnerships between school systems. Only three groups applied for the grants, and all three groups proposed tests based on Common Core standards.
Despite the Obama administration’s support, the governing power over the Common Core standards remains with the Common Core partners, not the U.S. Department of Education.
Tommy Bice, deputy superintendent of the state school system, told The Star on Wednesday that decisions on the future of Common Core would be made by the partner states, not the federal government. Board member Bell acknowledged that, but she maintains that the Obama administration’s push for Common Core is evidence that the program is a back-door power grab.
Bice may have seen this sort of conflict coming. That would explain why, earlier this year, he told the non-profit news organization Stateline that it was “regrettable” that Race to the Top focused so much on Common Core.
The standards, he told Stateline, “really weren’t developed by the U.S. Department of Education. They were developed independently of that.”