Look at No Child Left Behind. See, No Federal Control. Wait…

In what is either a case of blinders-wearing or just poor timing, today the Fordham Institute’s Kathleen Porter-Magee has an article on NRO, co-written with the Manhattan Institute’s Sol Stern, in which she and Stern take to task national curriculum standards critics who assert, among other things, that the Common Core is being pushed by President Obama. Yes, that’s the same Kathleen Porter-Magee whom it was announced a couple of days ago would be on a federal “technical review” panel to evaluate federally funded tests that go with the Common Core.

The ironic timing of the article alone is probably sufficient to rebut arguments suggesting that the Common Core isn’t very much a federal child. Still, let’s take apart a few of the specifics Porter-Magee and Stern offer on the federal aspect. (Other Core critics, I believe, will be addressing contentions about Common Core content).

Some argue that states were coerced into adopting Common Core by the Obama administration as a requirement for applying for its Race to the Top grant competition (and No Child Left Behind waiver program). But the administration has stated that adoption of “college and career readiness standards” doesn’t necessarily mean adoption of Common Core. At least a handful of states had K–12 content standards that were equally good, and the administration would have been hard-pressed to argue otherwise.

Ah, the power of parsing. While it is technically correct that in the Race to the Top regulations the administration did not write that states must specifically adopt the Common Core, it required that states adopt a “common set of K-12 standards,” and defined that as “a set of content standards that define what students must know and be able to do and that are substantially identical across all States in a consortium.” How many consortia met that definition at the time of RTTT? Aside, perhaps, from the New England Common Assessment Program, only one: the Common Core.

NCLB waivers, for their part, gave states an additional option – having their state college systems confirm state standards as “college  and career ready” – but that came after RTTT had already pushed states to adopt Common Core, and offered only a single alternative. That’s probably why, to use Stern and Porter-Magee’s own words, “President Obama often tries to claim credit” for widespread adoption of the Core. He actually had a lot to do with it!

As for states having “equally good” standards somehow being able to get past RTTT commonality demands, well, that’s just not how it works. The rules were the rules, and states didn’t just get out of them by saying “I dare you to act like our standards aren’t super.”

Education policymaking — and 90 percent of funding — is still handled at the state and local levels. And tying strings to federal education dollars is nothing new. No Child Left Behind — George W. Bush’s signature education law — linked federal Title I dollars directly to state education policy, and states not complying risked losing millions in compensatory-education funding (that is, funding for programs for children at risk of dropping out of school).

This is a very curious, self-defeating argument. Basically, Porter-Magee and Stern are asserting that the Feds only supply a small fraction of education money, and yet all states got sucked into No Child Left Behind. Applied to Common Core, federal money needn’t be very large in percentage terms to be irresistible, illustrating the very point about compulsion that Stern and Porter-Magee hope to refute. And it’s not hard to see why relatively small bombs of federal money pack a big punch: Taxpayers – who live in states – had no choice about paying their federal taxes, and no matter how they look in relative terms, millions or billions of federal dollars seem like mammoth sums in most news stories.

Perhaps the clearest evidence that states can still set their own standards is the fact that five states have not adopted Common Core. Some that have adopted it might opt out, and they shouldn’t lose a dime if they do.

It’s true that five states have not fully signed on to Common Core (Minnesota has adopted the language arts, but not math, portions), but that’s likely in large part because Race to the Top did not put annual funding on the line, and waivers had a non-Core option. But forty-five state did sign on, suggesting that the push was still very forceful. And it is irrelevant whether Porter-Magee and Stern think that states that opt out shouldn’t lose a dime of federal money. The reality is that those that have opted out did lose a full chance to win Race to the Top money, and if Common Core and accompanying tests are made central to a reauthorized NCLB – and why wouldn’t they be, since almost every state has adopted them – then annual funding would be put at risk. Which is what Common Core supporters have probably wanted since before the Obama administration existed, writing in 2008 that the job of the federal government is to furnish “incentives” for state adoption of “common core” standards.

So please, do look at NCLB when thinking about possible federal control of the Common Core. It’s a clarion alarm about what’s likely coming.