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Tuesday, May 14, 2013

Common Core: A Tocquevillean Education or Cartel Federalism?

When administrators act, they constitute as well as manage. But what is being constituted—Leviathans or self-governing communities of relationships in compound republics?

—Vincent Ostrom


The development of the Common Core, the model school curriculum standards that have been adopted by 45 states, offers us a glimpse into the dark underbelly of the democratic drift toward soft despotism. Proponents tout Common Core as “state-led” and say states “voluntarily adopt” the standards. Philanthropic and corporate America have gotten involved voluntarily. Parents and students—those most intimately affected by the initiative—won’t get to be a part of the voluntarism. But Common Core is so good, the argument goes, they’ll want it anyway. 

Bringing greater uniformity to the K–12 curricula across the country is supposed to rescue kids stuck in lousy schools and improve standards for everyone. But policy analysts across the spectrum from Brookings to Heritage are expressing skepticism about the promises accompanying the new standards. And it is quite likely that extending such bureaucratic uniformity from Washington to the state capitols and then to every public school district in the land will pose new risks to America’s federalist experiment in self-government. What’s more, the Common Core movement is pushing increased college matriculation just as students and parents are beginning to reassess the costs and benefits of college tuition.

Apologists for the Common Core seek to allay fears of creeping nationalization with appeals that seem to invoke the blessing of Alexis de Tocqueville, who admired the energetic voluntary associations Americans once formed in almost every field of endeavor. Tocqueville’s been making a comeback of late, so this defense of the Common Core isn’t in itself surprising. But what happens, we must ask, when state leaders, private donors, and voluntary associations embark on initiatives that don’t align with the principles of federalism necessary for sustaining America’s constitutional order?


All the Best Kinds of Experts

In many ways, the Common Core coalition’s rapid sweep of the country in four short years resembles nothing so much as the social movement for Prohibition a century ago, which led to the passage of the Eighteenth Amendment in 1919 (a police power fiasco that was repealed by the 21st Amendment in 1933). The best sorts of professional experts in education and government are on board, as are philanthropic and corporate America. The motives seem pure: Who doesn’t want schools held to higher standards?

The core fact of the Common Core, though, is that it’s a relentless and coordinated push by philanthropic and bureaucratic experts to shift authority and responsibility from local citizens and independent school districts to the far-removed high cover of central authorities. The Obama administration quickly tied Race to the Top dollars to Common Core adoption by the states, not only tainting the appearance of the Common Core’s voluntary roots but compromising the reality, too. State officials faced new external incentives: Rush to adopt the Common Core standards in order to submit applications for Race to the Top grants. Another carrot was added to the mix: States adopting the Common Core could receive administrative waivers from certain requirements imposed upon them by the much-touted No Child Left Behind legislation passed by Congress in 2001.

Indeed, the campaign for passage and implementation of the Common Core—which now includes a concerted (and corporate-sponsored) advertising campaign—epitomizes the trend toward cartel federalism described by Michael Greve in The Upside-Down Constitution (2012). In contrast to constitutional or competitive federalism, which works to discipline government at all levels, Greve describes cartel federalism as a form of bargaining among state governments and local elites that works to strengthen and centralize the national authority in return for attractive political and revenue returns. “A cartel federalism that empowers government at all levels is pathological, and quite probably worse than wholesale nationalization,” writes Greve.

The spring 2013 issue of Philanthropy magazine, published by the erstwhile-conservative Philanthropy Roundtable, recounts the “Common Core’s Uncommon Rise” and depicts the now all-too-common ways cartel federalism and its helpmate, philanthro-policymaking, work to generate and promote policy bandwagons. 

In 2008 the American Diploma Project, heavily funded by the Gates Foundation, convened state officials and education reform groups, many of whom saw national standards as a key move to promote greater equity of educational processes and outcomes. “[F]rom those meetings,” Philanthropy reports, “emerged the idea of leveraging the cross-state work that the governors and chiefs had been working on with the voluntary mechanism that the American Diploma Project had been using to help states benchmark standards to college and career readiness.”  

The new coalition began to make promises to donors, with apparently little attention to what voters in their respective states might have to say in the matter.

“In the early stages of conversation with the foundations, there was a lot of skepticism about whether the states could do this and would do this,” explains Gene Wilhoit, who was until recently executive director of CCSSO. “We didn’t have the entire support we needed when we started the process. So when we sat down with the philanthropic community we had to make some pretty specific promises to them—like having so many states agree to participate in the process, and that those states would sign on to the adoption.” Cash-strapped states did not have the funds necessary to undertake the Common Core project on their own, and funding from the federal government wasn’t desirable from the states’ perspective—governors and education commissioners knew that if voters were to embrace national benchmarks, they would need to be convinced that states were in the driver’s seat.

Once the voluntary sector was co-opted, the rest was politics.


To Educate for Liberty?

The debate over the Common Core is exposing new fault lines in America’s reigning political coalitions. Instrumental in the Obama presidential victories, teachers’ unions have been emerging as opponents of the Common Core. On the right, meanwhile, opposition to the Core is mounting from more libertarian- and Tea Party-oriented groups, while more neoconservative groups join in support for the new standards. In the National Review Online, Kathleen Porter-Magee (Thomas B. Fordham Institute) and Sol Stern (Manhattan Institute) recently tried to set conservatives straight, complaining:

Common Core offers American students the opportunity for a far more rigorous, content-rich, cohesive K–12 education than most of them have had. Conservatives used to be in favor of holding students to high standards and an academic curriculum based on great works of Western civilization and the American republic. Aren’t they still?

Such arguments miss the fundamental problem, however, which is that even if national standards could improve education for American students—and this is by no means certain—the rush to join in the national standards movement further alienates responsibility for education from the people whose lives are most intimately tied to what goes on in schools: teachers, students, and parents.

Officials in my state, Indiana, have wisely decided to review the state’s decision to adopt the Common Core, but as these things go, the odds are very long for a complete reversal. Nevertheless, the deliberations in this state and others may help us elevate the conversation beyond debates over the projected impact of these new standards. It opens the door to asking fundamental questions, such as, whom is education really for?  Is education primarily a tool of social control? Is education merely a benchmark for assessing state-to-state and international competitiveness? Or is education more properly the cultivation, student by student, of the knowledge and personal capacity for self-governance? An auspicious moment is arising for political leadership in helping citizens re-examine both the principles of federalism and the role of education in promoting liberty.


No Exit, No Discovery

Regardless of the merit of the proposed standards, it still matters who decides and whether there are rights of exit from the influence of the interlocking directorates of educational “experts,” government agencies, and companies standing to reap the rewards from selling new curriculum-aligned materials and tests to thousands of local school districts and families.

This is exactly the sort of debate over the very possibility of freedom in America that should be enjoined by those who would renew the federal vision of the American founders. Returning to a federal system that promotes liberty does not mean returning to educational arrangements that fail to provide access and opportunity for all children. But it does require renewing one of the perennial questions of a self-governing people, articulated here by Robert B. Hawkins, Jr.: “How can a society so constitute itself that its members will be free participants in a self-governing order and not merely the subjects of the state?”

In considering the role of education today, we must also take account of the ways in which the progress of both liberty and knowledge share dependence on trial-and-error discoveries. Schooling and public policy, therefore, need more of what we have learned about the mechanisms that best support the creation, diffusion, and validation of knowledge.

We understand today through the work of social theorists such as Ludwig von Mises, F. A. Hayek, Michael Polanyi, Michael Oakeshott, and others that the methods of scientific rationality are not applicable to the management of social problems in which human persons are actors. 

Writing in The Freeman on behalf of a freer market in education in 1995, Sheldon Richman deftly brought to bear the contrast between a closed universe of knowledge and an open universe, in which discovery remains possible. Richman observed that in government school systems, neither contracting out nor even charter schools were likely to help us make education better, for “the ends of the educational system are still set by the same small group of officials, who are protected from competition.”  

Common Core would build an “aligned” national infrastructure on the basis of what educators “know” at the present time with little apparent room for future competition as to the ends or the means or the methods of education. While educators may increasingly speak a standardized language, the children still may not learn. Worse, treated as educational subjects rather than as human persons, the rising generations may become even less capable of self-governance.

In “Individualism, True and False,” Hayek, invoking the insight of Lord Acton, offers us an antidote to the Common Core’s we’re-all-in-this-together boosterism: “While individualism affirms that all governments should be democratic, it has no superstitious belief in the omnicompetence of majority decisions, and in particular it refuses to admit that ‘absolute power may, by the hypothesis of popular origin, be as legitimate as constitutional freedom.’”

American debate over education should be, in the spirit of genuine American federalism, less concerned with global competitiveness and more attuned to the questions of what social arrangements most contribute to the capacity of a people for liberty. 

Vincent Ostrom points out the hollow victory of democracy if federalism is abandoned:

Those who continue to assume that the national government, because of its “federal form,” is competent to determine all matters that pertain to the governance of American society have fallen into two errors: that of neglecting the limited capabilities of those occupying positions of national authority; and that of considering citizens to be “more than kings and less than men” (Tocqueville [1835] 1945, 2:231), so that they are presumed to be competent to select their national rulers, but incompetent to govern their own local affairs. The “federal form” of the national government is no substitute for a federal system of governance.
But the principles of federalism can be left behind in other ways than outright nationalization of policy. Tocqueville wrote in admiration of America’s voluntary associations, but he saw as well that these associations depended on certain habits of the heart, which he thought were cultivated across America by the prevalence of local institutions of self-governance. Such smaller political communities may indeed include schools of all sorts, where people are engaged in both instrumental and civic ends together. 
A national curriculum shaping the educational institutions available to American children for the first two decades of their lives might be a wonder, if it could work. If it does not, shall we celebrate that at least we gave our habits of liberty away voluntarily, with great philanthropic ideals of equity and excellence in mind? Maybe we should consider hedging our bets.

  • Lenore Ealy is the executive director of The Philanthropic Enterprise, an interdisciplinary research institute exploring how philanthropy and voluntary social cooperation promote human flourishing. She is the founding editor of Conversations on Philanthropy:  Emerging Questions in Liberality and Social Thought and holds a Ph.D. in history from The Johns Hopkins University.