The federal government is forbidden, by law, to establish a national curriculum for the public schools. So, instead, the Department of Education is orchestrating a “voluntary” movement by dangling federal money to the states that go along. So far, 45 states are on board, creating a de facto national curriculum. Peter Wood of the Chronicle of Higher Education, no less, calls foul:
Before 1965, the federal government more or less left the matter entirely to the states, but that year President Johnson championed legislation, the Elementary and Secondary School Act (ESEA) that put the federal government in the business of funding portions of school districts’ budgets. The framers of the bill, aware that one thing leads to another, put in stiff statutory limitations that prohibited federal involvement with the K-12 curriculum.
Lots of federal legislation affecting the schools has followed over the years but all of it has stuck to the principle that the curriculum is a no-go area for federal authorities. The General Education Provisions Act (GEPA), the Department of Education Organization Act, and the No Child Left Behind Act were solidly aligned on this point. As GEPA put it:
No provision of any applicable program shall be construed to authorize any department, agency, officer, or employee of the United States to exercise any direction, supervision, or control over the curriculum, program of instruction, administration, or personnel of any educational institution, school, or school system…
There are no acts of Congress that create significant loopholes in these prohibitions, and none that offer up a contrary principle inviting the federal government to step into curricular matters.
These laws have been a source of frustration for would-be education reformers, left and right, who often have often been drawn to the idea that with the benefit of a little federal government muscle they could, at last, cut through the seaweed that has so far choked every effort to reform the nation’s public schools.
The Obama administration, facing the same legal obstacles as all its predecessors, chose a novel tactic. It orchestrated a program under the auspices of National Governors Association Center for Best Practices (NGA Center) and the Council of Chief State School Officers (CCSSO) which proposed standards that the states would be free to adopt. But “free” came with some sweeteners. The Race to the Top dangled hundreds of millions of dollars among those states that chose to adopt the Common Core. As for those states that chose not to…they face some interesting consequences too. I wrote about this last year in “The Core Between the States.”
Eitel and Talbert’s nineteen-page analysis of the legal standing of the Common Core State Standards mounts a powerful case that the Obama administration has overstepped itself. The Road to a National Curriculum does its most devastating work by quoting from Department of Education documents that lay out in plain language the effort to use federal resources to achieve results prohibited by statute. One such document, for example, explains, “The goal of common K-12 standard is to replace the existing patchwork of State standards that results in unequal expectations based on geography.”
Whether you think that is a worthy goal is beside the point. Over the last fifty years Congress has repeatedly told the executive branch of the U.S. government “keep out” of the school curriculum.
Wood points out that whether one favors a national curriculum or not, this is surely a violation of the law.
What would be the advantages of a national curriculum? (Would it be likely to lift academic standards and improve learning for the entire country?) What would be the disadvantages? (Wood thinks it would squelch what bright spots there are and drag all schools down into mediocrity.) What other issues do we need to be concerned about?