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As Iowa’s senior member of the United States Senate, Charles Grassley is well-known for his investigations of whether flim-flam ministries such as the notorious Eddie Long’s New Birth Missionary Baptist Church deserve federal exemption from paying income taxes, his defense of whistle-blowers who bring light to corporate and governmental malfeasance, and his longstanding support for federally subsidizing the production of ethanol, the corn byproduct that has proven to be economically uncompetitive as either a replacement for gasoline or an additive for it. None of those issues have much to do with federal education policy.

wpid-threethoughslogo.pngSo it was curious to see Grassley’s move yesterday to weigh in on education when he sent a “Dear Colleague” letter crafted by his staffers (along with, quite likely, folks from Americans For Prosperity, the Pioneer Institute, and in a rare moment of relevance, the Cato Institute’s education policy team) calling for the addition of language to the budget restricting the Obama Administration from requiring states to approve or implement Common Core reading and math standards as condition for participation in Race to the Top and other competitive grant programs, or from providing federal funding for those efforts. Nothing wrong with that per se; all politicians should be engaged in education policy. But Grassley’s lack of knowledge about the process of red-lining education policy (as well as that of those who drafted the letter for him) shows. Badly.

One could point to the fact that Grassley addressed the letter to his fellow Iowan, Senate Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions Chairman Tom Harkin (who isn’t likely to oppose the Obama Administration on this matter) and Jerry Moran (who is ranking member on an Appropriations subcommittee) and left out both Lamar Alexander, the former Tennessee governor (and onetime reformer) who now serves as Harkin’s counterpart on the committee, and Alexander’s predecessor, Mike Enzi. The latter two would have made Grassley’s letter worthier of consideration, as would have naming Barbara Mikulski (who now chairs the Appropriations Committee overseeing the actual budget process) and her Republican counterpart, Richard Shelby. Then there’s the fact that Grassley asks for a ban on any effort to require states to be part of Common Core when the administration doesn’t specifically mention it as a requirement in either its competitive grant efforts or in its counterproductive gambit to eviscerate the accountability provisions of the No Child Left Behind Act. Nor does the administration even ask states to come together in any multi-state effort to develop standards much less actually specify anything of the type. Obama Administration officials wouldn’t exactly do so because it is restricted from specifically requiring Common Core in the first place. That fact, of course, makes Grassley’s rather superfluous in the first place.

The Obama Administration does ask states to have approved “college and career-ready” standards as a condition for being considered for Race to the Top funding and for being granted a No Child waiver. This is what Grassley and Common Core opponents using him as a stalking horse want to actually stop the administration from doing because it allows for the administration to implicitly support the standards, as it is doing. Grassley’s letter does mention college and career-ready standards, but doesn’t specifically call for restrictions in the suggested language it wants to red line into the federal budget. One possible reason why it doesn’t is that no one on the senator’s staff (and, quite likely, none of the folks who helped draft it in the first place) know enough about red-lining federal education policy to make that plain in the first place.  The other? Because demanding that the Obama Administration not be allowed to ask states to craft and implement college- and career-ready standards would put Grassley (and his fellow Republicans in Congress) in the uncomfortable position of being accused by U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan and Senate Democrats of not wanting states to actually provide students with high-quality education, as well as put Republicans in the uncomfortable position of battling with entrepreneurs and businesses (as well as chambers of commerce) who have long supported implementation of the standards.

Of course, if Grassley and his allies were paying much attention, they would realize that the administration’s request for states to implement college and career-ready standards isn’t all that Common Core opponents (or, the administration, when it chooses to play it up) makes it out to be. Why? Because the administration doesn’t actually specify what makes for college and career-ready standards in the first place. A state could easily come up with a shoddy set of curricula standards, call them college and career-ready, and still get the administration’s approval in exchange for being allowed to ignore No Child and its Adequate Yearly Progress provision. More importantly, the administration can’t even hold states accountable for implementing the standards in the first place because federal law restricts it from doing so.

[By the way: This fact is one reason why Dropout Nation has argued strongly against the Obama Administration's waiver gambit since it was announced nearly two years ago; the administration is essentially allowing states to not meet their obligations to make sure that districts and schools are serving all children well, the very issue that led George W. Bush, the late Ted Kennedy, and current House Speaker John Boehner to craft No Child in the first place.]

As you would expect, what Grassley fails to mention in his letter is that Common Core was already being developed long before the Obama Administration came into the picture. Starting in 2004, Achieve Inc. started working with states through its American Diploma Project to help them develop curricula requirements for obtaining high school diplomas. That work would become more extensive when state governments through their two policymaking groups — the National Governors Association and Council of Chief State School Officers — began developing what are now Common Core reading and math standards. Common Core, in turn, builds upon the lessons gleaned from earlier efforts by reform-minded governors and standards and accountability activists within the school reform movement to craft curricula standards at the state level. Which hits upon this key point: Voluntary efforts toward national curricula standards has been as much a goal of the school reform movement (particularly standards and accountability advocates such as the Thomas B. Fordham Institute) as expanding school choice.

One of the lessons learned was that it is difficult for reform-minded governors to develop college preparatory standards in part because it meant facing opposition from traditionalists opposed to being accountable for providing kids with high-quality education. This fact is one reason why just two states had eighth-grade math standards that match that of the top seven nations in mathematics, according to the American Institutes for Research. The other, learned from No Child, is that the federal government can play a powerful role in providing cover to reform-mined governors and state chief school officers, who can then cut through opposition in order to make their overhauls a reality. Contrary to Grassley’s assertions and that of other Common Core foes, the Obama Administration isn’t engaging in any “interference”. In fact, based on the other complaints from Common Core foes about how the standards interfere with their cherished notions of local control by districts (which, under state constitutions, does not exist), and with their desire to continue the longstanding practice of districts and teachers developing their own curricula (which has proven to be an abject disaster for our children), Common Core supporters were right in essentially allowing the Obama Administration to implicitly support the standards.

The Obama Administration isn’t engaging in anything novel. Since the passage of the National Defense Education Act of 1958 (which encouraged states to do more so that children can get on the path to employment in the science, technology, engineering, and mathematics fields) administrations Republican and Democrat have encouraged this work in providing all kids with comprehensive college-preparatory curricula. The Reagan Administration’s release of A Nation at Risk in 1983 supported efforts already being undertaken by governors and chambers of commerce in southern states; it also led to the launch of some 25o commissions and panels working on developing curricula standards along with addressing other aspects of the nation’s education crisis three years later, according to current Teachers’ College President Susan Fuhrman. Then in 1989, the first Bush Administration would convene governors together in Charlottesville, Va., to craft America 2000, a series of goals that included setting comprehensive curricula standards; the Clinton Administration would follow up on this by 1994 with the passage of Goals 2000 as well as the reauthorization of what is now No Child. The passage of No Child, with its focus on measuring how well states and districts were doing in providing education to all children (including those from poor and minority backgrounds) would further encourage states to come together and develop common curricula standards.

Driving much of the work is the reality that far too many kids, especially those from poor and minority backgrounds (including those who live in Grassley’s home state) are not getting the education they need for success in an increasingly knowledge-based economy. The other driving force? The reality that the federal government wasn’t actually doing its job of holding states accountable for how it spent — or even whether it achieved results — with the subsidies provided, and that states, in turn, were not meeting the obligations in their respective state constitutions to ensure that districts — the arms of state government providing teaching and curricula — were doing their job as well. If anything, the Obama Administration is doing exactly what previous administrations since the 1980s have done: Holding states accountable for the federal education subsidies they receive, as well as supporting efforts by states to provide children with high-quality education. [The fact that the Obama Administration fails to realize that the strong accountability that is provided by No Child would actually help Common Core stick is pitiable; it should embrace common standards and common accountability that can be provided through No Child's accountability provisions.]

One can argue with some legitimacy that the federal government shouldn’t be funding education in the first place. But that discussion was settled 150 years ago with the passage of the Morrill Land Grant Act, which provided support for  development of the nation’s public universities. More importantly, as shown by Grassley’s fellow Republicans such as House Education and the Workforce Committee Chairman John Kline (a defender of federally subsidizing the nation’s special education ghettos) and House Speaker Boehner (a school reformer who continually defends efforts such as the D.C. Opportunity voucher program) few on Capitol Hill are either seriously interested in scaling back that role or  think it makes sense to do so.

Grassley’s effort, in short, is merely hamfisted grandstanding. It certainly gives Common Core foes a talking point for their claptrap. But it offers nothing in the way of thoughtful solutions for the nation’s education crisis.