The Federal Hand Behind Common Core

by Peg Luksik

department-of-education-building“Common Core is a state-led initiative.”

This sentence is among the most repeated pitch lines of those selling Common Core.  It is an effective sales pitch, but is it true?

The answer lies in the maze of money and regulation tying federal and state departments of education together.

Let’s start with the money.  The money is always the carrot that the federal government offers the states.

The money trail for Common Core begins in 2009, with the passage of the American Reinvestment and Recovery Act, commonly called the Stimulus Bill.  Among the bill’s many provisions was a $53.6 billion appropriation to the U.S. Department of Education, called the State Fiscal Stabilization Fund.  Of that amount, $4.35 billion was set aside for the Race to the Top initiative.

States had to access the funds in a prescribed order.  First was the Stabilization fund program.

In order to receive these funds, states had to assure the federal government that they would adopt “rigorous college and career ready standards.”   The elements of the standards were dictated by the federal government in the America COMPETES Act, and as part of their application for Stabilization funds the states had to sign an assurance page that specifically required them to align their state programs to the language of that federal law.

The Stabilization funds were awarded in two phases, with states submitting an application outlining their plans to adopt the standards to receive the first phase, and then submitting a progress report showing that they were actually completing those plans in order to receive the second phase of their Stabilization grant.  The U.S. Department of Education had to approve each state’s plan before Phase Two funds were awarded, effectively giving the federal government control over each state’s education programs.

States who had successfully completed the Stabilization grant process could then compete for Race to the Top funds.  This requirement was explained in question A-4 of Race to the Top Guidance and Frequently Asked Questions, published by the U.S. Department of Education on May 27, 2010.

Race to the Top was a competition grant process. States were awarded points based on how closely they conformed to the desires of the federal Department of Education.  In the case of the Common Core State Standards, Section (B)(1)(ii) of the Race to the Top grant application clearly outlined the federal requirements.  States would be awarded up to 40 points depending on their commitment to adopting a common set of standards by the federal deadline of August 2, 2010.

Under Race to the Top, states could add to the common standards, provided that the additions were not more than 15 percent of the total, but they could not subtract or change any of the standards.

The Race to the Top grant applications had to be submitted to the U.S. Department of Education BEFORE the standards were actually available to the states.  In January 2010 William McCallum, one of the authors of the Common Core Math Standards, spoke at a national mathematics conference in San Francisco.  In response to questions and concerns about the compressed schedule for developing the math standards, a schedule that did not allow for pilot testing or normal editing, Mr. McCallum told his audience that his “bosses,” the National Governors Association Center for Best Practices and the Council of Chief State School Officers, were being “pressed by U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan who was using the possibility of getting Race to the Top money as leverage to force states to commit now to adopting uniform standards.”  He told his audience that states were committing to the adoption of the standards “sight unseen.”

In Pennsylvania’s Race to the Top Phase Two grant application, submitted in May 2010, the State Board of Education told the federal government that if they received the standards by June 2, 2010, they would adopt them by July 1, 2010.  They kept that promise, tying every public and charter school student in the Commonwealth to standards that they had not even seen when they made the commitment.

A visit to the web site for the Common Core State Standards, reveals that the standards are the copyrighted property of the NGA Center for Best Practices and the Council of Chief State School Officers, and may only be used if a public license is obtained.  The same web site states that every user of the standards must acknowledge this ownership, except states.  States are exempted from sharing this information with their citizens.

So the money in the federal State Fiscal Stabilization Fund and Race to the Top were the carrots.

What was the stick?  The stick was federal regulation. And it was a big one.

Federal regulations implementing No Child Left Behind required every state to prove that 100 percent of its students were proficient in reading and math by the end of the 2013-2014 school year, with substantial penalties for failure to demonstrate that it had attained this impossible goal.

The U.S. Department of Education has allowed states to apply for flexibility from these requirements.  Section C of ESEA Flexibility Frequently Asked Questions, dated August 3, 2012, tells the states that to receive this flexibility, the state must prove to the federal government that it has formally adopted college and career ready standards.  The federal Department of Education is the sole judge of whether or not the state has adopted adequate college and career ready standards.

An examination of ESEA flexibility requests from across the country reveals that even states that did not apply for Race to the Top money, such as Texas and Virginia, were required to show how their state’s educational programs were aligned with the Common Core State Standards in order to be granted flexibility.  So even the states that did not take the carrot found themselves confronting the federal stick.

“State-led initiative” may be a wonderful sales pitch for those promoting Common Core, but an examination of the facts reveals that the reality does not match the marketing.

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