Politics & Policy

What Ever Happened to ‘State-Led’?

The federal role in the promotion of Common Core comes out in the open.

I’ve written recently that the Common Core poses a slippery slope toward increased federal control of schools and schooling. This is a disconcerting prospect for those concerned that federal officials are too far removed from the daily realities of education and too prone to faddish enthusiasms to be helpful, and who fear federal efforts will yield more bureaucratization than school improvement.

It’s especially troubling given how heavily Common Core proponents have relied on the table-pounding insistence that the enterprise was “state-led” and “voluntary.” Indeed, U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan spent 2013 ridiculing those who dared to question this orthodoxy as a narrow-minded, uninformed, radical “fringe” Since the debate began in 2009, we’ve been repeatedly reassured that we needn’t make too much of federal “incentives” to adopt the Common Core through Race to the Top or No Child Left Behind waivers, because those didn’t signal any larger federal role. And each time Duncan championed the Common Core, the proponents would insist that this was a one-time thing — and even say they wanted Duncan and the feds to stay out.

#ad#But times change. As if to illustrate the point, Duncan opted last week to use a White House gathering of college presidents — who depend on federal largesse — to tell them that they needed to be out there championing the Common Core. Questions about Duncan’s remarks were met with a giant yawn by Common Core advocates. The College Board’s Kathleen Porter-Magee, a champion of the Common Core, wrote, “I don’t think many (anyone?) has said using the bully pulpit is the same as usurping state authority.” Indeed, casually dumping the “state-led” line altogether, Porter-Magee added, “I think we can all agree that Duncan isn’t first EdSec to use the power of the bully pulpit to push his agenda.” Paige Kowalski, the state policy director at the Data Quality Campaign, wrote, “He can’t talk about [the Common Core]? That seems extreme.” Making clear just how specious the firm insistence that Common Core is “state-led” really is, University of Southern California professor Morgan Polikoff asked, “The White House can’t back state-led policies?” Fordham Foundation vice president Mike Petrilli, one of the nation’s most active conservative advocates for the Common Core, shrugged, “Hey, I wish [Duncan] would shut up. But he likes to weigh in on all manner of state and local issues.”

Five years into the “state-led” Common Core debate, the secretary of education is at the White House telling the leaders of institutions reliant on federal aid that they need to get out there and back the Common Core and . . . what? The folks who spent so much time selling this as “voluntary” aren’t even modestly troubled? They aren’t even a bit irate that Duncan might be making them look like liars? They can’t even muster up some pro forma press releases decrying Duncan for overstepping?

Nope. We’ve entered a new phase. Fidelity to this whole “state-led” line is so yesterday. After all, it seems to me that most Common Core proponents never did really care all that much about federal overreach or state autonomy. (For one thing, in private chats, a number have quietly conceded as much.) Their stance is that the Common Core standards are good, they’re here, and so it’s time to stop worrying and get with the program. As Porter-Magee opined on Friday, “My take: quality [standards] matter. I think these are good. I think that they were developed pre-Duncan. . . . But even most critics don’t advocate [a] return to prior [standards]. So, what’s the path forward?”

Looks like the skeptics have gone from being told that concerns about the federal role are ludicrous to being told that it’s too late to worry about such things. Going forward, this sure seems like the perfect recipe for more distrust, backlash, and division.

— Frederick M. Hess is director of educational-policy studies at the American Enterprise Institute and co-editor of Common Core Meets Education Reform (Teachers College Press, 2013).

Frederick M. Hess — Mr. Hess is the director of education-policy studies at the American Enterprise Institute.

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