Jun 1, 2010

Opposition to Federal Curriculum Helps Put Brakes on Race to the Top

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As of May 19th, the state of Minnesota has finally and thankfully given up on its second round application for Race to the Top (RTTT). The Pawlenty administration and many Republicans are blaming Democrats and the statewide teachers’ union for opposing reforms in teacher accountability such as alternative licensure, increased evaluations, performance pay, and tenure reform for the inability to proceed with the application.  Less discussed or admitted, but far more important for liberty, sovereignty, and academic excellence was the strong and concerted opposition from the grassroots and freedom-minded legislators to centralization of control and the adoption of national standards, otherwise known as the Common Core State Standards Initiative (CCSSI).

The CCSSI, though described as a voluntary, state-led initiative, comprises a federal curriculum, because it is required for participation in RTTT and because it appears that it will be required to receive the bulk of federal Title I money in the reauthorization of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA), currently known as No Child Left Behind (NCLB).

Unfortunately, although using the perhaps desirable goal of teacher accountability and the lure of federal funds in a difficult economy as a veneer, the Pawlenty administration and several legislators of both parties appeared to be quite on board with implementing this federal curriculum in Minnesota.  The legislative language would have allowed only the commissioner of education and the education committee chairpersons to make the adoption decision followed by implementation via expedited rulemaking, which would have meant no public hearings.  The administration’s rationale was that Minnesota would lose 20 precious points in the RTTT application if it was not done this way.

The Democrat majority, supported by their teacher union allies, thankfully voted down this secretive, bureaucratic process in the House education committee, because it was part of an entire package of “reforms” that included all of the teacher accountability that they opposed.  It was ironic that lovers of freedom, academic excellence and local control had to depend on the Democrat and union opposition to get the job done, but the strange bedfellow analogy fits quite well here.

Fortunately, by the time the bill reached the House floor, the Republicans, urged on by grassroots activists, gained a lot of insight about the dangers of this federal curriculum.  When they offered the governor’s package of reforms, they wisely divided out the CCSSI language and then withdrew it, so that the national standards would not be added to the bill.  In addition, a group of four of the bipartisan authors that included chief author Gene Pelowski (D) and Republican gubernatorial endorsee Tom Emmer, of the bill to prohibit Minnesota’s participation in RTTT, offered an amendment to the education bill that contained that same prohibition language.  Although only 15 Republicans and 10 Democrats voted for that amendment, its effect was to send a message that there was bipartisan opposition to RTTT and that Minnesota wants to make its own education decisions without interference from Washington DC.

The dynamics in the Minnesota Senate were different.  The Democrats in control of the education committee were willing to go along with teacher accountability reforms that the House opposed.  The Senate education committee passed the entire package, sadly including the CCSSI language.  An amendment to strip out the standards language, supported by all of the Republicans except one and two Democrats, failed by one vote.  Senator David Hann, senate author of the RTTT prohibition bill, was prepared to fight both the CCSSI and RTTT as a whole on the floor.  However, because of the continued fight over the teacher accountability reforms, many other problematic provisions, gubernatorial politics and, because there was so much opposition to RTTT and the CCSSI by other Senators from both sides of the aisle, the Senate Democrat leadership refused to bring the education bill to the floor.   Even if they had, the House bill contained none of the RTTT reforms, including the CCSSI, and given the House’s very strong opposition, a final bill was highly unlikely to have contained them either.  Both RTTT and the CCSSI were ultimately doomed in Minnesota.

The bottom line is that conservative grassroots opposition to federal control played a significant role in protecting the students and citizens of Minnesota from an indoctrinating federal curriculum composed of radical national/international standards and further steps toward “cradle to college” federal control of education.  Hopefully, Minnesota’s experience will serve as a cautionary tale for other states and bring up important issues of state sovereignty and academic excellence during the upcoming campaigns for congress, governorships and state legislative seats across the nation.

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