August 6, 2009 6:24PM

It’s All Voluntary But the Taxes

Chester Finn, president of the national‐​curricular‐​standards‐​pushing Thomas B. Fordham Foundation, has a piece on Forbes​.com today saying that our colleges would do much better if our K-12 schools gave them better prepared students to work with. I have no problem with that. I also, surprisingly, don’t have much of a problem with Finn suggesting that national standards, in particular those under development by the Common Core State Standards Initiative, could help get students college ready. That’s because he couches the assertion in numerous qualifications — which are most certainly called for – acknowledging that the resulting standards could very well be garbage or evaded.

So what do I have a problem with? This single — but critical — sentence about national standards :

They’ll be voluntary, to be sure, and not every state will embrace them.

No, they will not be voluntary! At least, they’ll be no more voluntary than complying with No Child Left Behind, speed limits, or anything else that states do to get some of their citizens’ involuntarily turned over federal tax dollars back. Indeed, though the official first draft of the CCSSI standards hasn’t even been released yet, states are being told that signing onto them will greatly improve their chances of getting a piece of the U.S. Secretary of Education’s $4.35 billion “Race to the Top” fund. Secretary Duncan has also said that the feds would consider spending up to $350 million on a national test to go with “voluntary” national standards. And No Child Left Behind hasn’t been reauthorized yet — what are the chances that forces in Washington will try to link much of the law’s funding to states signing on to national standards and tests?

In answer to that question I’d say, to be sure, the chances are pretty good; certainly much better than allowing truly voluntary adoption of national standards and tests.