It is a frequent talking point among certain Republican presidential candidates that the Common Core initiative to establish national standards was a state-led effort that was “hijacked” by the U.S. Department of Education (USED). Although this claim helps the candidates rationalize their previous support for Common Core, it doesn’t comport with demonstrable facts. And now comes further evidence — in the form of an admission by a former USED official — that USED was actively coercing states, in blatant violation of constitutional principles of federalism, from the earliest days of Common Core.
Joanne Weiss was the director of USED’s Race to the Top (RttT) program, the vehicle through which states were bribed to accept Common Core and the aligned assessments. In an essay recently published in the Stanford Social Innovation Review, Weiss confessed that USED used strong-arm tactics to transform states’ standards and assessments systems: “[W]e forced alignment among the top three education leaders in each participating state — the governor, the chief state school officer, and the president of the state board of education — by requiring each of them to sign their state’s Race to the Top application. In doing so, they attested that their office fully supported the state’s reform proposal.”
And remember that the RttT program launched in late 2009, before the Common Core standards were even written. If this was a hijacking, it happened awfully early in the process. It’s almost as if the hijacker were sitting in the co-pilot’s seat.
In fact, the federal government didn’t force its way into the process. Instead, it was affirmatively invited in by the National Governors Association (NGA), the Council of Chief State School Officers (CCSSO), and other private groups that were driving the Common Core initiative.
In December 2008, as a matter of guidance for the incoming Obama administration, these Common Core developers issued a report entitled Benchmarking for Success. This report advocated several steps toward education reform, including the widespread adoption of “a common core of internationally benchmarked standards in math and language arts . . . .” Where would such standards come from? Conveniently, the report noted, the states could use the standards produced by the brand-new Common Core State (sic) Standards Initiative being launched by NGA, CCSSO, and others. (The Common Core standards turned out not to fit the bill, because they weren’t internationally benchmarked, but states relied on the promise anyway.)
But how to persuade the states they should adopt the Common Core national standards? Benchmarking had a suggestion for that too: “As soon as possible, the federal government should offer new funding . . . to help underwrite the cost for states to take the [reforms] described above related to standards and assessment, curriculum, human capital, and accountability.”
So the coercion described so cheerily by Weiss was actually part of the plan all along. By pushing particular standards and assessments onto the states through ties to RttT money, USED was able to impose its policy preferences, and those of the private entities that were calling the shots (indeed, Weiss herself had worked with one of those entities before being brought to USED by Secretary Arne Duncan).
Standards and assessments drive curriculum. So by “persuading” states to adopt the standards and assessments it wanted, USED violated multiple federal statutes prohibiting it from “exercis[ing] any direction, supervision, or control over the curriculum, program of instruction, administration, or personnel” of any school.
But Weiss’s admissions go further than this. Not only did USED impose standards and assessments, it reached into the structure of state governments to dictate exactly how they should operate with respect to RttT. Weiss admits that USED “forced” state governments to get particular officials — the governor, the state school superintendent, and the state board chairman — to sign off on the state’s commitments regarding RttT. If that wasn’t the decision-making configuration a state would normally use on grants of this type, too bad — do it the feds’ way or not at all.
And note which state body was pointedly excluded from USED’s required signatories — the legislature. Weiss and her colleagues believed, probably correctly, that resistance to this federal transformation would increase if the legislature were involved and word leaked to the public at large. Move quietly, move under the radar, involve as few people as possible — that’s the strategy for imposing a revolution that the ignorant rubes in the states might derail if they learn of it.
And what happens when such machinations pervert the public policy-making process?
American children have to suffer through tragically poor curricula. As stated by James Milgram, professor of mathematics emeritus at Stanford University, and Sandra Stotsky, professor of education reform emerita at University of Arkansas, “a gigantic fraud has been perpetrated on this country, in particular on parents in this country, by those developing, promoting, or endorsing Common Core’s standards.”
Given that the Constitution gives the federal government exactly no role in education, the scope of the federal mandates in this situation is quite remarkable. But it wasn’t a hijacking — it was planned from the start. Presidential candidates should retire the misleading talking points.
Jane Robbins is an attorney and a senior fellow with American Principles in Action.