Tea Party Revives to Fight Common Core

by Stanley Kurtz

Today’s Washington Post has a front-page above-the-fold article on the battle that’s revitalizing the Tea Party: blocking the Common Core, the Obama administration’s push for a de facto national education system. The IRS scandal has surely helped to energize the Tea Party, but it’s the fight against Common Core that’s lent the movement new purpose and substance.

The Obama administration has been pressing the Common Core on cash-strapped states, often sight unseen, by conditioning eligibility for Race to the Top funding and waivers from No Child Left Behind on adoption of the initiative. The Tea Party rightly objects to this thinly veiled attempt to circumvent the legally and constitutionally enshrined principle of state-level control over education.

So how is education secretary Arne Duncan handling criticism? By implying that tea-party types are crazy, of course. Today’s Post quotes Duncan responding to claims that the Obama administration uses federal money to “bribe” states into accepting a “federal takeover of curriculum,” saying “it’s not a black helicopter ploy and we’re not trying to get inside people’s minds and brains.” Talk about straw men.

The claim that the Obama administration has been using fancy footwork to impose a de facto national education system isn’t confined to the Tea Party. Back in September of 2012, the Washington Post ran an article headlined, “Obama Drives Education Reform by Sidestepping Congress.” Here’s an excerpt:

In his three years in office, President Barack Obama has set in motion a broad overhaul of public education from kindergarten through high school, largely bypassing Congress and inducing states to adopt landmark changes that none of his predecessors attempted….Education Secretary Arne Duncan likes to point out that Race to the Top funds represent less than 1 percent of the $500 billion spent in this country annually for elementary and high school education, but that it has had an outsized impact.

So just last year Duncan was actually bragging about the effectiveness of his Race to the Top ploy, which the Post described as “inducing” states to do adopt changes beyond what earlier administrations would have attempted, and an end-run around Congress to boot.

Defenders of the Common Core often claim that the process is “state led,” using the fig leaf of the Council of Chief State School Officers (CCSSO), which helped develop the plan. CCSSO is a private group and can’t begin to substitute for a truly “state led” process, which would change education standards via legislatures and governors, after full consultation with the public. Nothing like that happened with the Common Core.

Yet it turns out that even the head of the supposedly “state led” Common Core initiative attributes its spread to Obama-administration pressure. That September 2012 article in the Post quotes Gene Wilhoit, executive director of the Council of Chief State School Officers, touting the fact that the Common Core was pressed on states by pressure from Obama and Duncan. “There is wide agreement . . . that the administration has been particularly successful at pushing through its flavor of education policy,” says the Post, which then cites Wilhoit saying, “They’ve taken their concept of reform, like it or not, laid it out very directly, put the resources around it and moved to drive state practices.”

So while Duncan now treats the suggestion that the Obama administration has been forcing de facto national education standards on the states as black-helicopter tea-party madness, last September, the Washington Post was noting it, the supposed head of the “state led” movement for Common Core was admitting it, and Duncan himself was practically bragging about it.

Now let’s have a look at a September 2010 column by Obama cheerleader Jonathan Alter, who gives Duncan credit for figuring out a tricky way to circumvent prohibitions on the development of national education standards:

Obama’s engine of reform, Race to the Top, has been phenomenally successful in using a relatively small pot of money, $4.4 billion from the 2009 stimulus package, to leverage a huge amount of change in education. After decades of failed efforts to establish national standards, Education Secretary Arne Duncan hit on an ingenious solution. By letting governors take the lead in developing sensible “common core” standards, he neutralized the conservative argument about too much influence from Washington. Then he applied the hammer: the rules of the Race to the Top competition made it hard for states to win extra money if they didn’t go along. Almost overnight, 37 states adopted national, er, common standards . . .

So back in 2010, Alter was praising Duncan for developing a clever ruse to circumvent barriers to nationalized education standards, and then using economic pressure to force the change on states. Today’s supposed tea-party black-helicopter accusation was yesterday’s liberal boast. Of course, when Alter talks about “letting governors take the lead,” he doesn’t mean doing it the right way, by actually proposing changes to state education standards to be adopted by legislatures. He means using the fig leaf of another private group, the National Governors Association, to make it seem as if something that was in fact nationally imposed was “state led.”

So the Tea Party is right when it accuses the Obama administration of nationalizing education standards through the back door. The Founders opposed that for a reason. Once de facto nationalization is achieved, parents will lose their ability to influence their children’s education. Leverage that can be easily exercised at local school-board meetings or through representatives in state legislators will be lost to unaccountable federal bureaucrats (like Lois Lerner), and worse, to the even less accountable private education consortia that are developing the Common Core. So if educators try to impose politicized curricula or “fuzzy” math, parents will have no recourse.

Defenders of the Common Core sometimes say we should overlook all this because the Common Core standards raise educational quality. Not so, as this important piece from Common Core critics Jamie Gass and Jim Stergios shows. Not only are the Common Core standards too low, they’re based on the wrong kind of educational philosophy. As Gass and Stergios show, the Common Core abandons classic liberal-arts learning of the kind that succeeded in Massachusetts before the Common Core, under federal pressure, killed it off.

Kudos to the Tea Party for bringing this fight to the Obama administration. The Constitution is not out of date, and neither is the Tea Party. With luck, however, Arne Duncan may soon be.

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