March 27, 2012 1:21PM

The Other Federal Takeover

Right now the nation is fixated on the Supreme Court and health care, as well it should be. If the Court rules the wrong way and the individual mandate is upheld, seemingly the last limit to federal power—Washington can't make you buy stuff—will be gone. So yes, please, let's focus on ObamaCare.

When the arguments end and the health fight abates for a while, however, let's pay some much needed attention to another federal takeover, one that is constantly being overshadowed by bigger things like wars, ObamaCare, and budget blowouts: looming federal domination of education.

There's actually an immediate ObamaCare connection to education, though few will likely recall it. To make the CBO cost estimates come out right, Democrats attached the Student Aid and Fiscal Responsibility Act (SAFRA) to the already immense legislation. SAFRA eliminated guaranteed college loans—loans originated through private lenders but completely backed by taxpayer money—and made almost all lending direct from the Treasury. It wasn't a sudden takeover as many Republicans framed it—the guaranteed program already represented massive federal control—but it did push the private sector even farther to the student-lending fringes.

Much more insidious is what Washington has been doing in K-12 schooling.

The real sea change was No Child Left Behind, when the Feds went from primarily doling out money, to dictating that every state have standards and tests in math, reading, and science, and schools and districts make yearly "proficiency" progress. It was a huge ramping-up of already unconstitutional federal involvement.

At least NCLB, though, was enacted through the proper legislative process: Congress debated the law, voted on it, and the president signed it. These days, that's just too much of a bother.

The Obama administration started unilaterally making education policy with the "Race to the Top," a contest in which states competed for $4 billion in "stimulus" money. Among the administration-specified things states essentially had to adopt to win? National curriculum standards, better known as the "Common Core," which we are told repeatedly are voluntary for states to adopt.

But wait. Didn't I used to write that Race to the Top was $4.35 billion? What happened to the other $350 million?

It wasn't part of the purse states competed for. Instead, the administration is using it to pay for the development of national (read: "federal") tests to go with the Common Core.

In case all that weren't enough, the Obama Administration has decided it's tired of waiting for Congress to rework NCLB and is issuing waivers to states that promise to implement administration-approved reforms. Included in those is adopting "college- and career-ready" standards, a euphemism for the Common Core. In other words, the federal government is on the precipice of dictating the basic curriculum for every public school in America, and doing so without even the semblance of following the constitutional, legislative process. It's not just a federal takeover, but an executive branch takeover.

Why hasn't this gotten the sort of attention that's been showered on health care?

Unfortunately, a large part of the problem is that people are simply accustomed to a government education monopoly. Historically such a monopoly hasn't been the norm, but in our lifetimes it has, and government schooling advocates would have us believe that it is the cornerstone of our society. Not so with health care: lots of people want others to pay for their care, but the default has never been government assigning you a doctor and hospital based exclusively on your home address.

The other part of the problem is people simply don't know about the federal edu-coup. This is especially the case with national standards, which advocates have purposely soft pedaled to avoid the fate of open and honest—but disastrous—federal standards efforts in the 1990s. And when the topic has come up in public discussion, classic propaganda techniques have been employed: repeat enough that the effort is completely "state-led and voluntary," and people will believe you.

Thankfully, it's not too late to reverse this. There's no historic Supreme Court showdown on the horizon, but some states have started to resist federal control, and groups like the Pioneer Institute and Pacific Research Institute have undertaken concerted efforts to expose the Common Core. The biggest problem is that the public is largely oblivious to what's going on. Which is why, after the ObamaCare Supreme Court arguments are over, we need to turn our attention to the other, almost complete, federal takeover: education.

March 20, 2012 4:26PM

Power Yes, Trigger No

There is little question that parents have too little power in elementary and secondary education. In fact, they have almost no power: they can vote, but are otherwise usually relegated to being class moms, or holding bake sales, or some other fluffy "involvement" that gives them no real say over how their children are educated. Adding insult to injury, that doesn't often stop professional educators from blaming parents when students don't do so well.

To remedy the problem, the trendy thing seems to be "parent trigger" laws that would, generally speaking, allow a majority of parents at a school declare that they want to fire the staff, or bring in a private management company, or some other transformation. It's been the spark behind some especially heated conflicts in California, as unions and parents of different stripes have been doing battle with each other. It is also the subject of a New York Times "Room for Debate" exchange today.

While I sympathize—obviously—with those who advocate giving parents more power, I cannot help but conclude that the parent trigger is a very poor way to do this. For one thing, it is inherently divisive: what about the 49 percent, or 30 percent, or whatever percent of parents who don't want the changes the majority demands? They've got no choice but to fight it out with their neighbors. It is also inefficient: individual children need all sorts of options to best meet their unique needs and abilities, but the trigger would just exchange one monolithic school model for another.

The trigger, quite simply, is no substitute for real educational freedom: giving parents control of education funds, giving educators freedom to establish myriad options, and letting freedom, competition and specialization rein.

There is, however, one gratifying thing about the parent trigger: it has made historian Diane Ravitch—who constantly decries the destruction of "democracy" were we to have educational freedom—express outrage about "51 percent of people using a public service hav[ing] the power to privatize it."

Um, isn't majority rule what democracy is all about? Or do government schooling defenders really just invoke the term because it sounds so nice and is such a potent rhetorical club?

The answer, it seems, is getting more clear.

March 2, 2012 10:26AM

Common Core Supporter: Maybe Opposition Not Paranoia

Two years ago Fordham Institute President Chester Finn called people like me, who saw the move toward national curriculum standards as a huge lurch toward federal control, "paranoid." Well it looks like he might be catching a little of the paranoia, too. Or, at least, while still calling Common Core adoption "voluntary," he recognizes that the Obama Administration keeps on proving that the paranoiacs aren't really all that crazy:

Sixth, and closely related to the blurring of national with federal is the expectation that Uncle Sam won’t be able to keep his hands off the Common Core—which means the whole enterprise will be politicized, corrupted and turned from national/voluntary into federal/coercive. This is probably the strongest objection to the Common Core and, alas, it’s probably the most valid, thanks in large measure to our over-zealous Education Secretary and the President he serves.

Let’s face it. Three major actions by the Obama administration have tended to envelop the Common Core in a cozy federal embrace, as have some ill-advised (but probably intentional) remarks by Messrs. Duncan and Obama that imply greater coziness to follow.

There was the fiscal “incentive” in Race to the Top for states to adopt the Common Core as evidence of their seriousness about raising academic standards.

Then there’s today’s “incentive,” built into the NCLB waiver process, for states to adopt the Common Core as exactly the same sort of evidence.

(In both cases, strictly speaking, states could supply other evidence. But there’s a lot of winking going on.)

The third federal entanglement was the Education Department’s grants to two consortia of states to develop new Common Core-aligned assessments, which came with various requirements and strings set by Secretary Duncan’s team.

This trifecta of actual events is problematic in its own right, not because the federal government is evil but because Washington has become so partisan and politicized and because of angst and suspicion that linger from failed efforts during the 1990’s to generate national standards and tests via federal action.

What’s truly energized the Common Core’s enemies, however, has been a series of ex cathedra comments by President Obama and Secretary Duncan. Most recently, the Education Secretary excoriated South Carolina for even contemplating a withdrawal from the Common Core. Previously, the President indicated that state eligibility for Title I dollars, post-ESEA reauthorization, would hinge on adoption of the Common Core. Talking with the governors about NCLB waivers earlier this week, he stated that “if you’re willing to set, higher, more honest standards then we will give you more flexibility to meet those standards.” I don’t know whether he winked. But everybody knew what standards he was talking about.

It will, of course, be ironic as well as unfortunate if the Common Core ends up in the dustbin of history as a result of actions and comments by its supporters. But in March 2012 there can be little doubt that the strongest weapons in the arsenal of its enemies are those that they have supplied.

When what someone predicted actually occurs, it's a lot harder to assume him delusional. It's more accurate to call him "right." And on national standards, even supporters are starting realize that Common Core opponents have been right all along.

February 24, 2012 10:25AM

‘Say I Threatened You Again, And You’ll Really Be Sorry!’

Apparently, if you try to undo something the feds want you to do, they'll slap you around until you confess they've never threatened you. At least, that's how Education Secretary Arne Duncan rolls when it comes to national curriculum standards:

Following is a statement by U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan on a legislative proposal in South Carolina to block implementation of the Common Core academic standards:

“The idea that the Common Core standards are nationally-imposed is a conspiracy theory in search of a conspiracy. The Common Core academic standards were both developed and adopted by the states, and they have widespread bipartisan support. GOP leaders like Jeb Bush and governors Mitch Daniels, Chris Christie, and Bill Haslam have supported the Common Core standards because they realize states must stop dummying down academic standards and lying about the performance of children and schools. In fact, South Carolina lowered the bar for proficiency in English and mathematics faster than any state in the country from 2005 to 2009, according to research by the National Center for Education Statistics.

“That’s not good for children, parents, or teachers. I hope South Carolina lawmakers will heed the voices of teachers who supported South Carolina’s decision to stop lowering academic standards and set a higher bar for success. And I hope lawmakers will continue to support the state’s decision to raise standards, with the goal of making every child college- and career-ready in today’s knowledge economy.”

I don't really need to go any further than the statement itself to prove that, contrary to "Fat Tony" Duncan's protestations, it is not a "conspiracy theory" to say that the Common Core is "nationally imposed." But let's rehearse the litany one more time:

  • In 2008 the National Governors Association, Council of Chief State School Officers, and Achieve, Inc.---the main Common Core architects---called for federal "incentives" to get states to adopt "a common core of internationally benchmarked standards in math and language arts."
  • President Obama's $4.35-billion Race to the Top required that states, to be fully competitive for grants, adopt national standards.
  • Race to the Top contained $330 million that Washington is using to fund development of two national tests to go with the Common Core.
  • The President's "blueprint" to reauthorize No Child Left Behind would make national standards the backbone of federal accountability.
  • To get waivers from No Child Left Behind's most onerous provisions, a state has to either adopt the Common Core or have a state college system declare that the state's standards are "college- and career-ready." Of course, this came after almost every state had already adopted the Common Core.

Why is Duncan lashing out? Quite possibly, he's reacting to a recent spate of research and commentary attacking the Common Core based on its highly dubious legality, quality, and odds of success. That South Carolina is considering backing out---though the Palmetto State effort fell short in a Senate subcommittee---might have pushed Duncan over the edge. I mean, how dare those people try to buck what Duncan and his boss were not in any way trying to get them to do!

Unfortunately, as failure in the South Carolina committee reinforces---and I warned last week---it is unlikely that many states will formally boot what they've already adopted. The time to fight to keep the Common Core out of states was before Race to the Top decisions were made, as we at the Center for Educational Freedom did. Of course, it was off most people's radars during that crucial time because that was exactly what national-standards supporters wanted. And it's what their ongoing dissembling about Washington's heavy hand is intended to continue.

Thankfully, that strategy seems to not be working so well anymore.

February 16, 2012 12:17PM

War Against the Core

With the release of a new Brookings Institution report today, and one from a consortium of groups last week, resistance to the national-standards offensive seems to be mounting. And even though almost every state in the union has adopted the Common Core, and few are likely to formally undo that, the war against the Core can still be won.

Today's new front comes in the form of the Brookings Institution's 2012 Brown Center Report on American Education, which includes three sections attacking rampant misuse of standards and tests. The first focuses on the Common Core, looking at the discernable impacts of state-level standards on achievement, and finding that (a) varying state standards have no meaningful correlation with achievement on the National Assessment of Educational Progress, and (b) there is much greater variation within states than between them, meaning national standards will do little to change big achievement gaps.

The report's other two sections deal, first, with differences between the Main and Long-Term Trend NAEP -- which brings up a central problem of using tests to judge quality without knowing what's on them -- and second, the misues of international exams to tout favorite policy prescriptions. Basically, pundits and analysts love to pick out countries in isolation and finger one or two characteristics of their education systems as key to their success. Some also love to invoke  this stinker that I and others have railed about for years:

In the U.S., advocates of a national curriculum have for years pointed to nations at the top of TIMSS and PISA rankings and argued that because those countries have national curriculums, a national curriculum must be good. The argument is without merit. What the advocates neglect to observe is that countries at the bottom of the international rankings also have a national curriculum.

The report is well worth checking out. The only quibble I have is that it fails to mention what I covered two years ago, when the national standards stealth attack was fully underway: reviewing the national standards research literature, there is no meaningful evidence that national standards lead to better outcomes. It's great to have more support for this, but we've known for a while that the empirical foundation for national standards is balsa-wood strong.

The second report comes from a coalition of the Pioneer Institute, Pacific Research Institute, Federalist Society, and American Principles Project. The Road to a National Curriculum focuses on all the legal violations perpetrated by the federal government to "incentivize" state adoption of the Common Core and connected tests. Much is ground we at Cato have periodically covered, but this report goes into much greater depth on specific statutory violations. It also does nice work debunking standards supporters' plea that they don't want to touch curriculum, only standards, as if the whole point of setting standards weren't to shape curricula. The report goes beyond pointing out just this logical silliness by identifying numerous instances of Education Department officials, or developers of federally funded tests, stating explicitly that their  goal is to shape curricula.

This report is another welcome counter-attack, though it, like the Brookings report, misses something important. In this case, that all federal education action -- outside of governing District of Columbia schools, military schools, and enforcing civil rights -- is unconstitutional. Stick to that, and none of these other threats materialize.

Unfortunately, it is unlikely that many states that have adopted the Common Core -- and all but four have -- will officially back out. An effort was made in Alabama to do so, and one is underway in South Carolina, but Alabama's failed and it's not clear that there's huge Palmetto State desire to withdraw.  Many state politicians don't want to miss out on waivers from No Child Left Behind, which the Obama administration has essentially made contingent on adopting the Common Core, and others would rather not revisit the often contentious standards-adoption process.

That doesn't mean that any state is truly locked into the Common Core. Formally they are, but like so much government does, states and districts could just ignore the Common Core, keeping it as the official standard but doing something else in practice. The only thing that could really stop them is if Washington were to rewrite federal law to make access to major, annual education funding -- not Race to the Top or even waivers, but money from a reauthorized No Child Left Behind -- contingent on adopting Common Core, and on performance on one of the two federally funded tests to go with the standards. Then the battle truly would be lost, but we are not there yet -- indeed, reauthorization doesn't seem likely until at least next year -- so there is plenty of time for the national standards resistance to grow, and to dismantle the powerful, but ultimately hollow, national standards juggernaut.

February 9, 2012 8:47AM

Waiving Goodbye to the Constitution

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Today the Obama administration will announce, according to early press reports, that ten states (of eleven that applied) will be receiving waivers from key provisions of the No Child Left Behind Act. That's right, the 2002 education law passed by Congress and signed by President Bush that absurdly insisted that all children will be proficient in mathematics and reading by 2014. Now President Obama, unilaterally, is telling states that they can forget all that as long as they adopt -- or at least have "plans" to adopt -- reforms to his liking, such as national curriculum standards and teacher evaluations based on student standardized testing progress.

At this point, it is almost impossible to keep track of the federal savaging of the Constitution in supposed service of education. First there was the federal expenditure of money, allowed by none of the enumerated powers, largely starting in the 1960s. Then there was the growing attachment of controls to that money -- again, with no Constitutional authority -- culminating in NCLB. Now there is the blatant disregard for the separation of  powers by a President who just decided he didn't like waiting for Congress to reauthorize the law, and a Congress that exhibits no spine whatsoever when it comes to this power grab because, well, no one seems to like NCLB.

Within this fiasco is all the evidence anyone should need to see why the Feds must be extracted from education. While Washington can drop humongous sacks of taxpayer dough on states and districts, and impose lots of bureaucratic rules and regulations, it can't actually make education much better. Indeed, the whole point of NCLB was to end decades of Washington spending billions for no return. And what happened? Exactly what state, district, and school-level bureaucrats and unions expected: "accountability" swerved off the road before the 2014 deadline. It took longer than expected -- it was a slightly more nerve-wracking game of political chicken than usual -- but in the end the entrenched interests won because they're the most motivated to bring the political pain. After all, their very livelihoods are at stake.

Aside from desegregation -- which it has Constitutional authority to compel -- the federal government has done no meaningful good in education. Why? Because the special interest-driven reality of politics ensures it can't do any good. Yet we not only let it continue to trample the Constitution by meddling in education, we are allowing it to shred the Constitution into ever-smaller bits in order to "fix" the destruction it has wrought. And for this, all who turn a blind eye to the Constitution in the name of "the children" are to blame.

January 27, 2012 8:49AM

Obama Is Avoiding the Tough College Course

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College prices truly are ridiculous. But someone needs to tell President Obama that the root problem isn't the colleges, which he is expected to announce today will be the targets of proposed sanctions should they raise prices too fast. No, the problem, Mr. President, is a federal government that wants to play Santa Claus by giving everybody, no matter how poorly qualified or unmotivated, money for college.

As I itemized in How Much Ivory Does This Tower Need? What We Spend on, and Get from, Higher Education, total aid in the form of federal grants and loans (I didn't even get into tax credits and deductions) ballooned from inflation-adjusted $29.6 billion in 1985 to $139.7 billion in 2010. That is mammoth, and it probably helped not just colleges to enrich themselves, but enrollment to expand from 8.9 million full-time equivalent students in 1985 to 15.5 million in 2010.

But that latter part is good, right? Doesn't that giant enrollment increase mean we've been "educating ourselves to a better economy," to steal a favorite Obama administration catch phrase?

It might, if all those people were attaining important skills and graduating. But they haven't been. You can get more details in my paper -- and yes, some of the following stats are probably somewhat low because they're for first-time, full-time students -- but the higher ed outcomes appear dismal no matter what:

  • The most recent six-year graduation rate for students in four-year programs was 57.3 percent
  • The most recent three-year graduation rate for students in two-year programs was a minute 27.5 percent
  • Roughly a third of people who manage to get bachelor's degrees are in jobs that don't require them, up from about 11 percent in 1967
  • According to recent research by Richard Arum and Josipa Roksa,  45 percent of students learn nothing in their first two years of college, and 36 percent nothing in four years
  • Between 1992 and 2003, the percentage of bachelor’s holders proficient in prose literacy dropped from 40 to 31 percent, and in document literacy from 37 to 25 percent, on the National Assessment of Adult Literacy

What does all this -- and more that's in the paper -- tell us? That millions of the people taxpayers are sending to college are getting little if anything out of it, while the colleges rake in heavy dough. But that means the root problem isn't the colleges -- they are just taking the people government sends them -- it is the federally dominated funding system that insists on giving dollars to almost any warm body that declares it wants to experience ivy-covered walls and frat parties.

In light of this depressing reality, if the president really wants to rein in costs he will call for significanlty reducing student aid, both the amount available to individual students, and the numbers of students eligible.

That, though, will probably not happen. Not only did the president talk up keeping aid cheap and casting an even wider net in his State of the Union, but taking the right course -- cutting aid -- means taking the politically tough course. And neither this president, nor almost anyone else in Washington, has ever signalled real willingness to do that. It's just much easier to keep giving money away.