Federal Fig Leaf or Flexibility?

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Federal Fig Leaf or Flexibility?

by: Theodor Rebarber

Originally published by the Pioneer Institute on May 29, 2013 and reprinted with permission.

As the fight over the national Common Core academic standards continues to heat up in the states, it’s worth taking another look at the Obama Administration’s claim that they are absolutely, positively not using federal power to coerce states into adopting the Common Core. For those who haven’t been following the ins and outs of this particular federal soap opera, states are now in the position of pleading with federal officials for waivers from unworkable provisions in federal law. In 2002, Congress and the Bush Administration passed the No Child Left Behind Act (NCLB), which mandated that by the spring of 2014 (next year!) fully 100% of all public school students in America must meet grade level standards in English and Mathematics. This includes 100% of special education students, 100% of brand new immigrant students who don’t speak a word of English, and 100% of all other students.

Now, some might wonder, what kind of educational reasoning could possibly have gone into establishing such a policy? The unfortunate answer is that the politicians in Congress who passed NCLB — most of which had never previously had to make such educational decisions — weren’t relying on educational logic but on political logic. Should any future candidate or constituency be able to criticize them for aiming at anything less than EVERY student meeting grade level standards, especially if failing students might be disproportionately minorities, lower income, or those with special needs? But NCLB didn’t just establish the 100% passing goal as a worthy aspiration, it was mandated as policy, with those states and schools not meeting the goal to be shamed publicly as failures and subject to sanctions and consequences.

With the Bush Administration gone, and the unachievable 100% standard closing steadily, the Obama Administration announced in its first term that states hoping for a waiver from this or other provisions of NCLB could obtain one if they would adopt the Common Core standards in English and Mathematics. This appeared to some — OK, to many — like the feds misusing a waiver provision designed to provide greater flexibility for states to, instead, impose national curriculum standards that were never authorized by Congress (or, in fact, prohibited by Congress). Mais non!, insists President Obama’s Secretary of Education Arne Duncan, this is all a big misunderstanding — a myth, in fact — because states are unfettered to choose “Option B,” college and career readiness standards different than the Common Core standards.

For those unwilling to simply accept the good word of the Obama Administration, however, a review of materials on the U.S. Department of Education’s webpage on NCLB waivers indicates that out of 37 state waivers approved so far, two have gone to states that didn’t adopt the Common Core Standards in English and Mathematics: Alaska and Virginia.

Exhibit A for the Administration’s claim that the waivers aren’t being used to impose a national curriculum, Alaska’s 820-page (!) approved waiver submission, documents to the satisfaction of federal officials that the state has met all of their requirements. Revealingly, an included analysis of alignment between the Alaska standards and Common Core (pp. 346-7) concludes that, though “Alaska has chosen different wording and examples for certain standards,” the final revised Alaska standards “align very closely with the Common Core” (emphasis added). Examples are included of how this impressive degree of alignment was achieved, including state standards that were modified to fit Common Core and Common Core standards adopted in their entirety. Perhaps not coincidentally, the DC-based Council of Chief State School Officers (CCSSO), a key author of the Common Core standards, was selected to perform the alignment analysis and confer its blessing on the state’s standards.

Exhibit B, Virginia’s comparatively brief 202-page approved initial waiver submission, states on p. 14 that one of the state’s accomplishments is “. . . the adoption of revised content standards that reflect national and international college- and career-ready expectations in mathematics and reading and are fully aligned with the Common Core State Standards” (emphasis added). The approved state submission goes on to cite extensive analyses of alignment between Virginia’s standards and the Common Core as well as resulting modifications and supplementary standards added based on Common Core (pp. 18-19). For Mathematics, a live link is included within the application providing federal reviewers access to a document detailing line-by-line additions to the state’s standards to bring them into alignment with the Common Core. For English, the application describes how Common Core was incorporated directly at the time of the state’s revision of its standards to ensure alignment.

Under previous federal Administrations, states were required by federal law only to vouch to the U.S. Department of Education that they had adopted student academic standards. Today, under an unchanged federal law, states that don’t officially adopt Common Core provide documentation to federal officials of modifications to their standards to ensure that they are “very closely” or “fully” aligned to the Common Core. So, are states free to adopt academic standards that are meaningfully different from Common Core, or is “Option B” just a fig leaf for federal control?  One of the states which has not yet obtained a federal waiver from NCLB is Texas, which has created its own rigorous academic standards. Will Texas, under federalism champion Governor Rick Perry, meekly accept federal authority over its academic standards?


Theodor Rebarber is CEO of AccountabilityWorks, a nonprofit organization. His several decades in education have included the private sector, the federal government, and the Vanderbilt Institute for Public Policy Studies (VIPPS).