The Quiet Education Overhaul
Yesterday, President Obama delivered a major speech on education in an effort to garner support for his Race to the Top grant program and his push for national education standards and tests. The President’s remarks came on the heels of a speech delivered by Education Secretary Arne Duncan on Tuesday at the National Press Club, during which Duncan attempted to paint the Administration’s policies as part of a "quiet revolution."
Duncan certainly got the quiet part right. Since his Administration came into office, President Obama has quietly been reworking the country’s education system, doing an end-run around normal legislative procedure. With the U.S. Department of Education’s (DOE) funding doubled thanks to the so-called "stimulus," the Administration has little need or incentive to bother negotiating its education agenda through Congress. Instead, the DOE is using that windfall of funding and power to stage a significant overhaul of local schools; dangling grant money before cash-strapped states on the condition they adopt key pieces of the Obama education agenda. And this is all happening without public consideration, even though it means that parents will now have to trek to Washington to petition an unaccountable bureaucracy if they want to see changes in their children’s curriculum. Knocking on the door at the DOE (the lowest rated federal department) is unlikely to produce a response.
The push for national education standards and tests began last year when the National Governors Association (NGA) and the Council of Chief State School Officers (CCSSO) began writing standards for what all U.S. students should learn in school. Meanwhile, the Obama Administration has been backing the effort with federal dollars, pressing Race to the Top grants in front of fiscally starved states while making it clear that they also intend to make Title I funding (the largest federal education program at $14.5 billion) contingent upon acceptance of these standards. A number of states have signed onto the standards to position themselves for federal grants—without the American people ever having the opportunity to weigh in on such a drastic change that will soon be coming to a school near you.
Secretary Duncan’s use of the term revolution was also right on the mark. The federal government’s ever-expanding role in education, and now the Obama Administration’s push for national standards and tests, threatens the long-established right of parents to direct their children’s education and confuses a proper understanding of federalism. States model federalism for children by setting standards, tests, and curriculum. But that important lesson in self-government will be another unintended casualty of this standards overhaul now that the federal government is overreaching to set the educational terms for local schools—contrary to the spirit of the Constitution and the letter of federal law, which expressly prohibits federal involvement in standards, tests, and curriculum.
But it’s not just our deep-rooted principal of federalism that is at stake in President Obama’s education agenda; it’s also our ongoing pursuit of excellence that hangs in the balance.
Secretary Duncan has referred to state standards as "50 different goal posts." That comment makes clear that the Administration’s push for national standards is geared more toward uniformity than with excellence and more concerned with standardization than minimum standards of quality and rigor. States that currently have high quality state standards—such as Massachusetts, California, Virginia, and Indiana—offer exemplary models, creating competitive pressure for other states to raise their academic standing.
But when national standards are enshrined, they’ll slump toward the middle of the pack—standardizing mediocrity and generating the kind of nationwide uniform data that will be more useful to national bureaucrats than to parents. Current standards and tests, developed at significant taxpayer expense by each state, currently provide the kind of information parents need. What’s needed is more transparency about that information and for parents to be empowered to make choices on that information.
The Obama Administration’s plans would dramatically change our country’s education system without a single vote in Congress and without the American people having the opportunity to debate the issue. But this one-size-fits-all approach from Washington is not a fait accompli. State leaders in Texas, Virginia, Minnesota, and Indiana have voiced clear concerns about losing state autonomy under this federal standards overhaul.
National standards would not make public schools accountable to families; rather, they would make schools responsive to bureaucrats in Washington, D.C. Moreover, national standards and tests would be a one-size-fits-all approach that tends toward mediocrity and standardization, undercutting the pockets of excellence and the principle of federalism on which this nation is founded.
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