Rubio Was Right on Fed Ed Power Grabbing

In last night’s GOP presidential debate, Sen. Marco Rubio (R-FL) said in response to a question about the Common Core national curriculum standards that, sooner or later, the Feds would de facto require their use. If you know your federal education – or just Common Core – history, that’s awfully hard to dispute.

Said Rubio: “The Department of Education, like every federal agency, will never be satisfied. They will not stop with it being a suggestion. They will turn it into a mandate. In fact, what they will begin to say to local communities is: ‘You will not get federal money unless you do things the way we want you to do it.’”

That is absolutely what has happened with federal education policy. It started in the 1960s with a compensatory funding model intended primarily to send money to low-income districts, but over time more and more requirements were attached to the dough as it became increasingly clear the funding was doing little good. Starting in the 1988 reauthorization of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA) we saw requirements that schools show some level of improvement for low-income kids, and those demands grew in subsequent reauthorizations to the point where No Child Left Behind (NCLB) said if states wanted some of the money that came from their taxpaying citizens to begin with, they had to have state standards, tests, and make annual progress toward 100 math and reading “proficiency,” to be achieved by 2014.

Predictably, instead of setting high proficiency bars that were tough to get over, states set them low enough, it seemed, for most kids to trip over them. That largely spurred the move to get all states onto “common” standards and tests, which ultimately became the Common Core and connected assessments. True, the Common Core was created by the National Governors Association (NGA) and Council of Chief State School Officers (CCSSO), but there’s no real question that the federal government was meant to drive adoption.  The NGA and CCSSO called for it in the 2008 report Benchmarking for Success, Core supporters worked with the Obama administration to have the Core de facto required for states to compete for a slice of $4 billion in Race to the Top ducats, and Core adoption was one of only two standards options to get a waiver from NCLB. Oh, and for good measure, the federal government selected and funded the consortia writing Core-aligned tests.

If what has actually happened isn’t enough to convince you of Rubio’s wisdom, what the Obama administration has asked for should be: that annual appropriations of federal education money be tied to adoption of, and performance on, “college- and career-ready” standards, and like under waivers, states could only use either the Core, or standards a state university system certified as acceptable. And really, if the premise is that states won’t hold themselves accountable for performance – and it is – what other entity than the federal government has the power to make them?

Of course, all the political force that has kept state standards and accountability largely toothless would be directed at Washington were the feds to take full control, so the control would be educationally impotent. But effective or not, it is clear that standards-and-testing logic demands federal force.

But isn’t Washington shrinking away from control? Isn’t the national mood strongly inclined to reduce DC’s power under NCLB, as reflected in the House and Senate bills to reauthorize the ESEA?

Thanks to a massive backlash by parents against the federally strong-armed Common Core and accompanying tests, and teacher opposition to tying test scores to evaluations, the current mood is indeed hostile to federal domination. But both ESEA reauthorization bills leave open potentially sizeable back doors for federal control, and when public anger eventually subsides, the more lasting impulse for politicians will be to “do something” when schools perform poorly. And “doing something” usually means more federal control, even if the signs are that it almost certainly won’t work.

Rubio is right to worry.