Of all the arguments for and against the adoption of the national Common Core State Standards, the educational benchmarks in English language arts and mathematics, the claim that states had no choice in the matter is the weakest of all. That contention is based on the flawed idea that when the federal government offers money for a program, states must accept it. There is no legal or fiscal argument to support this theory.
Some state governments seem to think that they can reach out with one hand to ask the federal government for money, while wagging a finger with the other hand to scold the feds for intruding into state education policy.
Education has always been a state and local issue. The federal government was not largely involved in K-12 education until 1917, when the Smith-Hughes Act passed, which helped fund agricultural vocational programs in high schools. Since then, however, the federal government's influence in elementary and secondary education has increased, with 2002's No Child Left Behind serving as the high water mark for federal involvement in K-12 education. While Congress fails time and again to renew or replace the controversial program, the Obama administration has moved forward to encourage the adoption of the Common Core.
"Race to the Top" is the federal competitive grant program authorized under the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009. All states were eligible to apply to receive part of the $4.35 billion pie. Of the 500 possible points that a state's application could earn, there were 40 points up for grabs for "developing and adopting common standards." Lured by the promise of federal dollars, 45 states and the District of Columbia have adopted the Common Core Standards.
Now, years later, educational scholars and activists alike are expressing concern about the Common Core. Undoubtedly, there is a worthwhile, vigorous debate about the merits of a set of national standards and how this will affect the education system in every district. Even the cost of implementing the Common Core is far from a settled issue.
There are some critics, however, that are giving state governments a pass and blaming the widespread adoption of the Common Core on the federal government. Charges of a federal takeover of education and a violation of the principles of federalism are not in short supply, but no state can claim a power that it has already surrendered.
Although $4.35 billion in federal grants is a large "carrot," it doesn't rise to the level of being an offer that states couldn't refuse -- especially when there's no "stick" to enforce the offer. For the offer of Race to the Top grants to cross the line into being unconstitutionally coercive, it would have to revoke a large amount of previously promised education funds. That was the Supreme Court's conclusion in NFIB v. Sebelius, when the Court upheld the Affordable Care Act (ACA) but also declared that Medicaid expansion could not be forced upon states with the threat of eliminating all federal money for the joint state-federal Medicaid programs. Race to the Top grants did not even require the Common Core Standards.
There is a real choice for state leaders to make when it comes to the Common Core, and critics ought not excuse state governments' role in accepting it in the first place. States have the bad habit of relying too heavily on the federal government for support without fully considering the consequences. In 2011, federal aid for state budgets ranged from 24 percent (Alaska) to 49 percent (Mississippi). It now appears that the typical zeal for more financial support led several states down the Common Core road before they checked to see where the road ended.
Yet, nothing is set in stone, and states can enjoy the opportunity to be better late than never. Michigan and Indiana recently moved to "pause" implementation of the Common Core Standards until the issues surrounding fiscal impact and education policy could be fully considered. Indiana Governor Mike Pence, unlike his predecessor, Mitch Daniels, is wary of education standards that have not been developed "by Hoosiers, for Hoosiers." Indiana's "pause" specifically asks for a review of the educational standards and a study for how much implementing the Common Core will really cost.
Now is the time for states to take a mulligan and change course on the Common Core -- if that's what they want to do. And they need to realize that it is, in fact, their choice.
Bob Williams is the President of State Budget Solutions (www.statebudgetsolutions.org), a national organization dedicated to fiscal responsibility and pension reform. Williams is also a former state legislator and gubernatorial candidate.
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