An Uncommon Approach to Costly Common Core Education

By Sherena Arrington

Sherena Arrington

Joseph Califano, secretary of health, education and welfare in the Carter administration declared that “in its most extreme form, national control of curriculum is a form of national control of ideas.” That was in 1977. This month, syndicated columnist George Will cited Califano’s warning in a column bemoaning the Obama administration’s latest education intervention through the Common Core Curriculum State Standards Initiative.

Almost every state in the nation has rushed to join the Common Core curriculum movement with hardly a thought of the cost, financial or otherwise. In most cases, however, the “states” have barely been involved. Simply put, massive educational bureaucracies have signed on to the Common Core and have expected, and generally received, no interference from the three branches of government. Whatever happened to that adage, “Look before you leap?”

In fact, states signed up for Common Core standards without even knowing what those curriculum standards would be. This seismic shift in education governance is quietly moving forward without so much as a whimper from most legislative bodies. State legislatures have been left in the dark.

In Georgia, where education already consumes half the state budget, taxpayers should know that the Legislature did not even receive a fiscal note on the cost of implementing Common Core standards. The appointed members of the State Board of Education voted in July 2010 to adopt Common Core standards and approved $1.3 million for fiscal year 2011 and another $1.27 million for FY 2012, but the Legislature has no awareness of the total costs that the state will incur in the long run. There has been no open debate about the cost and about the direction it would take the state.

Just who is in charge of the Common Core? The quick answer: primarily unelected educational “experts” who have no direct accountability to the people are the creators of the Common Core curriculum standards.

Two organizations take credit for developing the Common Core “on behalf of” the states, declaring, “These English language arts and mathematics standards represent a set of expectations for student knowledge and skills that high school graduates need to master to succeed in college and careers.” These organizations, both based in Washington, D.C., are the National Governors Association’s Center for Best Practices (NGA Center) and the Council of Chief State School Officers (CCSSO) along with considerable advice from Achieve, Inc., ACT, the College Board, the National Association of State Boards of Education and the State Higher Education Executive Officers.

The federal government is quite careful to avoid any credit for the Common Core because such direct meddling into the curriculum of the states would actually be illegal, according to several federal laws. Instead, the federal Department of Education pushes the Common Core onto the states through the constitutional power of the Spending Clause.

The letter of the law is met when states agree to conditions attached to grants, in this case embracing all the strings attached to the Race-to-the-Top grant and accepting the waiver conditions tied to No Child Left Behind. Such federal grants frequently are carrots to get states to voluntarily commit to federal educational goals, which end up costing states more money to administer than they ever receive in federal funds.

Citizens are expected to trust in this educational consortium and allow the Common Core full sway over their state’s curriculum. A state may supplement the standards, but those additional standards may not exceed 15 percent for any content area and states cannot omit or change any of the other 85 percent.

Are legislators unable to lead a good debate on federalism or demand an accounting of the economic long-term costs to the citizens they represent? What about just old-fashioned liberty? Are legislatures ready to yield the very heart of the educational system, the standards that drive the curriculum, to unknown bureaucrats who are spread far and wide having virtually no accountability to state taxpayers? Or, what about the bare bones minimum of legislative oversight?

Educational bureaucracies seem to operate as if they are the fourth branch of government. They want the money appropriated by the legislature and to be left alone to do with it as they please. A shorter rein, constant accountability to the people and reducing educational dependence on federal grants would go a long way to ensuring that the people of each state retain control of their educational systems that are paid for with their tax dollars.

Texas opted out in part because of the exorbitant cost of implementation: according to Lone Star state estimates, the cost would be upwards of $3 billion to implement new standards, devise new tests and purchase new textbooks to comply. Virginia, too, has opted out due to the additional costs and burdens.

Other states are starting to question their commitment to the Common Core. South Carolina is now attempting to apply the brakes, but not just due to costs. Governor Nikki Haley stated recently, “Just as we should not relinquish control of education to the federal government, neither should we cede it to the consensus of other states.”

Federalism matters. As Founding Father James Madison explained, federalism provides the constitutional backbone of liberty. Governor Haley recognizes that South Carolina has a duty to its citizens to protect their Tenth Amendment power over education. It remains to be seen whether the Legislature agrees, but now its people have an opportunity to weigh in on the decision. That is more than can be said for Georgians.

The Common Core provides a perfect example of how quickly a state can lose control of its K-12 educational system. Obviously, curriculum is central to education. With Georgia supposedly locked into the Common Core as a condition of the Race to the Top federal grant as well as the No Child Left Behind waiver, it appears the state will simply become the administrative agent for a nationalized curriculum through the adoption of nationalized standards, and the citizens will pick up the expensive tab.

This is what should be called, “education without representation.” Such a hands-off approach to K-12 educational policy is an abandonment of the Legislature’s constitutional duty to keep the agencies of state government accountable to the people, especially so when it comes to an agency whose mission consumes at least $7 billion in state taxpayer funds and $6 billion in local taxes annually.

(Sherena Arrington is a Georgia-based political consultant and policy researcher.)

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