Emmet McGroarty
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Editor’s note: This column is from the March 2011 edition of Townhall Magazine. Be sure to order your subscription today to make sure you get the newest issue.

Over the past few years, a mix of political, corporate and foundation interests has launched American education on a profound and largely unnoted revolution. Its victims are the democratic process, educational freedom, local control and parental authority.

The story dates back decades, but its current phase began in 2007. That year, the Gates and the Eli Broad foundations pledged $60 million to inject their education vision, including uniform “American standards,” into the 2008 campaigns. Then, in May 2008, the Gates Foundation awarded the Hunt Institute for Educational Leadership and Policy a $2.2 million grant “to work with governors and other key stakeholders” to promote the adoption of standards. The following month, Hunt and the National Governors Association hosted a symposium to explore education strategies.

In December 2008, during the transition to the Obama administration, the NGA, the Council of Chief State School Officers and Achieve, Inc. (an entity founded by NGA, governed by six state governors and six corporate leaders, and funded by several mega-corporations and foundations) set out their education vision in “Benchmarking for Success,” funded by the Gates Foundation. It outlines five “reform” steps, including nationwide standards.

NGA wanted to implement its plan quickly -- and avoid the tedium of the democratic process. If given the chance, the people -- through their elected representatives -- might muck around with, or reject, NGA’s eventual product. (That’s what happened with the Constitution; the people demanded the addition of the Bill of Rights.) The 2009 stimulus bill provided NGA’s breakthrough. It increased the Education Department’s discretionary spending by 25,500 percent, giving it a fresh pot of money and a means to shape state and local curricula without congressional interference.

In March 2009, one month after passage of the stimulus bill, the Education Department announced a two-part “Race to the Top” “national competition” to distribute the money. It tied 14 percent of the proposal evaluation in the first round to commitment to ratifying (with an August 2010 target date) and implementing the standards. A state could not get money unless it signed onto the standards.

Meanwhile, NGA and CCSSO had formally launched their Common Core Standards Initiative to develop and implement national K-12 academic standards. They planned to “leverage states’ collective influence to ensure that textbooks, digital media, curricula and assessments are aligned” with the standards. CCSSO President-elect Sue Gendron aptly described it as “transforming education for every child.”

The cash-starved states jumped for a share of the $4.35 billion. By June 2009, only Republican Govs. Sarah Palin of Alaska and Rick Perry of Texas had refused to join the effort. Perry argued that it would be “foolish and irresponsible to place our children’s future in the hands of unelected bureaucrats and special interest groups thousands of miles away in Washington, virtually eliminating parents’ participation in their children’s education.” He said it “smacks of a federal takeover of our public schools.”

In March 2010, NGA released the “first official public draft” of the standards, followed by a June release of the final product. The two first “winners” of R2T funds were announced that month. At that point, to meet the deadline for the second and larger round, states had only two months to commit to adopting the standards. Regarding New Jersey’s June 16 adoption, Rutgers professor Joseph Rosenstein remarked in Education Week, “Deciding so quickly … is irresponsible.”

In May 2010, Virginia Gov. Bob McDonnell sided with Texas and Alaska and withdrew from R2T and the standards. He argued that Virginia’s “standards are much superior” and are “validated” (the federal standards have not been field-tested). Nonetheless, by the end of June 2010, 16 states had formally adopted the standards. By the Aug. 2, 2010, R2T application deadline, 31 states had adopted them. That number now stands at 42.

NGA is becoming even more involved through the development of “a State Policymaker Guide to Implementation … planning the future governance structure of the standards and convening the publishing community to ensure that high-quality materials aligned with the standards are created.” The Gates Foundation is developing new courses “with content aligned to the common-core standards and [is] reinventing and realigning traditional courses like Algebra 1 and Geometry to the common core.” And it seems that the administration will request additional R2T funding. It seemingly also intends to tie Title I education funds -- a dramatically larger sum that few states can do without -- to agreement to national standards and tests.

This entire process was problematic.

First, there are the standards themselves. They cover fewer topics than what children are learning now. The Gates Foundation explains that “fewer” means “giving students enough academic preparation, without exceeding the math and literacy requirements that evidence demonstrates are necessary to enter two-year colleges.” And to keep the people in line, the NGA ruled that states “may choose to include additional standards beyond the common core as long as the common core represents at least 85 percent of the state’s standards in English language arts and mathematics.”

There are legal issues. The federal role in the standards initiative contravenes laws prohibiting the Department of Education from directing a state’s curriculum.

Furthermore, the underlying process showed great disrespect for the American people. The discretionary nature of R2T excluded the people’s representatives in Congress from a meaningful decision-making role. Likewise, the short time frame and huge R2T cash incentives were intended to exclude the states from meaningful decision making. The Founders considered a great defect of the Articles of Confederation to be, as stated by Alexander Hamilton, “that it never had a ratification by the People.” They did not make that mistake with the Constitution, and they would be disappointed that we have not learned the lesson.

And then there’s the NGA. It is not an official body of the states. Yet, it is acting like a legislative body and, on a transformative initiative, helped cut the American people out of the democratic process. Each governor is responsible for safeguarding that process. A good start on that would be to reform the NGA.

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Emmet McGroarty

Emmett McGroarty is executive director of the Preserve Innocence Initiative at the American Principles Project.