May 12, 2011

Imposing a Federal Curriculum on Private Schools – Why Voucher Programs that Require State Tests Are So Dangerous

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On May 9th, a group of academics, think tank leaders and policy makers led by Bill Evers of the Hoover Institution, Sandra Stotsky and Jay Greene of the University of Arkansas and others, who have long seen the dangers of a federal curriculum, released a 100+ signatory counter-manifesto to the Shanker Institute and US Department of Education’s efforts to combine national curriculum guidelines and national tests with the Common Core National Standards already being implemented through the Obama administration’s Race to the Top initiative.

Along with many distinguished groups and policy makers at the state and federal levels, Education Liberty Watch has the honor of being one of the original signatories to this excellent document.  The consortium’s press release discusses the problems and lack of need for these brazen moves to nationalize standards, curriculum, and tests:

  • These efforts are against federal law and undermine the constitutional balance between national and state authority.
  • The evidence doesn’t show a need for national curriculum or a national test for all students.
  • U.S. Department of Education is basing its initiative on inadequate content standards.
  • There is no research-based consensus on what is the best curricular approach to each subject.
  • There is not even consensus on whether a single “best curricular approach” for all students exists.

As is proper, the first and greatest concern listed is the legal/constitutional issue.   This is enormously important, because the U.S. Constitution is silent on the matter of education.  Yet the federal role in education is growing larger by the year. The Elementary and Secondary Education Act, currently known as No Child Left Behind (NCLB) has the federal government interfering in and setting state and local education policy in a myriad of ways. One good provision in NCLB, however, prohibits federal interference in curriculum.

NCLB is awaiting reauthorization.  The Obama administration/s blueprint for that reauthorization includes requiring that states implement national “college and career” ready standards in order to receive funds under this law.  No one seems to be noticing that federal funding of these standards is a significant violation of that prohibition on federal interference with curriculum as is the federal DOE and Shanker Institute’s effort to develop national curriculum guidelines.

Now thanks to the Race to the Top program’s bribery/thuggery of dangling billions of deficit dollars from the worthless stimulus program paid for with a maxed out credit card to cash starved states to “voluntarily” accept unconstitutional, lowest common denominator national standards and federal control of education, 43-1/2 states and D.C. are implementing these national standards in their states.  (Putative conservative former Minnesota Governor Tim Pawlenty’s education department adopted the English language arts standards, described by curriculum and standards expert Dr. Sandra Stotsky as “content and culture free,” but was at least wise enough to decline the math standards.)

Yet, these national standards are now or are becoming the basis for the state tests that private schools or low income families that accept vouchers must take.  Hence, not only are public school systems ceding their constitutional authority to determine curriculum in order to try to gain a paltry amount of federal money that if they receive it, will likely not continue, but now the private schools that want to offer poor students a refuge from the academic failure of public schools must give these state tests and only these state tests, which are now based on the national standards.

The voucher bill just passed in Indiana and the one under consideration in Minnesota require either the private schools or the students receiving the voucher/opportunity scholarship to take the state tests in order to provide “accountability” for the use of public funds in private schools.  The alternative of a nationally norm referenced test is refused by proponents saying that these widely used, but private tests despite their use by private and home schooled students, who most often outperform their counterparts in public schools, are too different to provide “apples to apples” comparisons.

The groups most adamantly opposed to allowing private schools to maintain this freedom to use nationally norm referenced tests are the groups representing large corporate interests, such as the Chamber of Commerce, the Business Roundtable, and the Business Partnership, who have always been in favor of nationalized curriculum, standards, and tests and even international standards.  In fact, analyzing the rift between the big government interests of business and the freedom interests of the Republican Party and conservatives, University of Minnesota political science professor Larry Jacobs said, “The Republican ideological shift to the right has come into conflict with the programmatic needs of business. The unspoken truth is business needs government.” The bottom line is that the big government education advocates and even those that genuinely want to help poor children, but are being used or pressured by big business, have intentionally or unintentionally created an entrée to control the curriculum of the private schools.

This is despite the fact that private schools generally far out perform public schools on achievement tests, which is why so many parents of poor students are working so hard to get their children into these schools. To say that private schools need academic accountability compared to the public schools or that the accountability can only be provided via the state tests really makes no sense.

The only other logical reason for pushing this “accountability” via only one method of testing is an attempt to gain a foothold of control over the curriculum of private schools.  This cannot be allowed to happen if the private schools are to be maintained as a viable alternative to the public schools.

The good news is that states are waking up to the dangers of the federal curriculum at least in their public schools.  There are several state measures to prohibit implementation of the common core state standards in Minnesota (the bill for which Education Liberty testified in enthusiastic support), Texas, New Hampshire, and South Carolina.

To do that, please consider signing on to the counter-manifesto, oppose voucher/scholarship initiatives in your own states that implement the federal curriculum in private schools by requiring that state tests only be given in private schools that receive these funds, and strongly support legislative efforts to prevent or undo implementation of the Common Core Standards.

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