The Federal Takeover of Education

Federal control over education has been growing since the 1960s despite the fact that the word education does not appear in the Constitution of the United States.

Now, as the current administration pushes for national education standards, federal control over education is about to expand considerably at the expense of state and local control.

Texas Eduation Commissioner Robert Scott described the push for national education standards as "a step toward a federal takeover of the nation's public schools."

A little more than a year ago, state leaders launched the Common Core State Standards Initiative to develop a common set of K-12 standards in English and math. The standards they developed, known as the Common Core, are the first and only common education standards.

Although the Common Core standards were developed by the states and not the federal government, federal funding has been linked to their adoption.

Using a combination of carrot and stick, the current administration has been pressuring states to adopt the standards.

As an incentive, states that adopted the Common Core by August 2, 2010 greatly improved their chances of receiving a share of the $4.35-billion Race to the Top federal grant. The strategy worked: most states adopted the standards. However, only nine states and the District of Columbia were actually awarded the money. All ten of those winners had adopted the standards.

As a penalty, states that failed to adopt the Common Core risked losing funding from Title I, a $14.4-billion program that provides funds for low-income students. Most school districts participate in the Title I program.

This penalty was announced in a White House press release issued on February 22, 2010. It stated that new polices from the Obama administration would "require all states to adopt and certify that they have college- and career-ready standards in reading and mathematics, which may include common standards developed by a state-led consortium, as a condition of qualifying for Title I funding."

Public discussion about the Common Core has been severely limited because of the rush to establish national education standards and the lack of transparency in the procedures involved.

Alabama State Board of Education member Betty Peters said, "It is most unfortunate that the American public has been left out of the most drastic change ever in public education; even most school board members have been kept in the dark when it comes to details."

Are Americans being bypassed once again by this administration? Remember when the health care reform bill and financial reform bill were rushed through Congress before anyone could learn what was in them? Remember when U.S. Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi said, "But we have to pass the bill so that you can find out what is in it, away from the fog of the controversy"?

Now, with the same warp speed and stealth, this administration is pushing for national education standards.

Part of the stealth has involved proponents maintaining that adoption of the Common Core is a voluntary decision to be made by each state and outside the realm of the federal government. But is it really?

Or does voluntary adoption disappear when federal financial strings are attached?

At a time when states are facing difficult economic times and budget shortfalls, how would they be able to justify turning down millions of federal dollars?

Typically, when federal financial strings are attached, control begins with a nudge. Then it's a push. Then it's a shove. Ultimately, it ends up becoming a takeover.

For now, it's a nudge to national education standards. Then it will be a push to national testing. Then it will be a shove to a national curriculum.

Look how federal funding for No Child Left Behind led to mandatory testing and proficiency requirements for the states.

Did that federal intervention actually lead to higher academic standards or improved student outcomes? No, it led to the dumbing down of many state standards and zero improvement in student outcomes.

In fact, ever since President Lyndon Johnson implemented the Elementary and Secondary Education Act in 1965, federal involvement in education has led to zero improvement in student outcomes.

Who is benefiting from the federal government's expanding role in education? It's not the students or society as a whole. So who, then?

Should federal involvement in education be expanded even further with the creation of national standards, national testing, and a national curriculum? Or should state and local governments be liberated from additional federal tyranny and be allowed to make their own decisions about education?

In exchange for temporary federal money, state and local governments would give up their authority over education. The loss of that authority would mean that public schools would no longer be directly accountable to school boards. Parents and other taxpayers would lose their voice in the selection of standards, testing, and curriculum.

In other words, those who have the greatest vested interest and the most at stake in improving student outcomes would have the least amount of control over the process.

Thus far, I have not addressed the quality of the Common Core. Federal intrusion has obscured the discussion over whether or not these particular standards are any good.

Again, the rush to establish national education standards and the lack of transparency in the procedures involved have severely limited public discussion on the matter.

Just because the Common Core contains the first and only common education standards does not mean that these are the best possible ones. Because academic standards vary widely from state to state, the Common Core may improve some state standards while worsening others. For these reasons alone, it would not make sense to make the Common Core the de facto national education standards.

However, that is exactly what is happening because of the federal government's nudging.

Unfortunately, many states have already adopted the Common Core, but it's not too late for the others. They can still choose to maintain their authority over education and continue to empower parents and taxpayers, the people who have the greatest vested interest and the most at stake in improving student outcomes.

The Founding Fathers knew that national control of curriculum would result in national control of ideas. It was no oversight that they left the word education out of the Constitution of the United States.

Bill Costello, M.Ed., is the president of U.S.-based Making Minds Matter, LLC and the author of Awaken Your Birdbrain: Using Creativity to Get What You Want. He can be reached at