Last spring, the National Governor’s Association (NGA) and the Council of Chief State School Officers (CCSSO) began developing a set of math and English language arts standards as part of their Common Core Initiative. The Common Core Initiative is being driven by the belief that standardizing academic content across states will raise academic achievement, and that students will be better prepared to compete with their peers worldwide. Forty-eight states have since signed on to adopt the voluntary academic standards.

So far so good, right? States coming together voluntarily to adopt common standards sounds like federalism in action. But the groundwork is already being laid by the Administration and Congress to provide incentives for states to sign-on to the Common Core Initiative. Rep. George Miller (D-CA), Chairman of the House Education and Labor Committee, alluded to as much in a hearing Tuesday on the common standards initiative. Miller stated:

Secretary Duncan’s Race to the Top Fund is already helping spur reform in standards and assessments. This gives us reason to be optimistic that we will see the seismic shift in education that our country needs.

The Race to the Top Fund (RTTT)- the unprecedented $4.35 billion in discretionary funds that was allocated to Education Secretary Arne Duncan through the “stimulus” – is now being used to incentivize states to adopt common standards. Adoption of common standards is one of the main criteria for receiving RTTT dollars. The Department of Education’s guidelines require that, in order to be eligible for RTTT money, a state must have:

…demonstrated commitment to improving the quality of its standards by participating in a consortium of States that is working toward jointly developing and adopting, by June 2010, a common set of K-12 standards.

But standards without assessments have little teeth. So the RTTT guidelines also require a state to work toward demonstrating:

…a commitment to improving the quality of its assessments by participating in a consortium of States that is working toward jointly developing and implementing common, high-quality assessments aligned with the consortium’s common set of K-12 standards.

Once the Department of Education gets in the business of penalizing or incentivizing standards and tests, their “voluntary” nature is jeopardized, and they’re well on their way toward the national standards and tests that represent a significant power consolidation in Washington and a threat to the educational federalism. During Tuesday’s hearing, Rep. Glenn Thompson (R-PA) voiced such concerns:

Secretary Duncan has not been shy about his intentions to dramatically reshape education through the Race to the Top fund. And one key component of the Race to the Top guidelines is the requirement that states participate in and adopt a set of common academic standards. The Department has even gone one step further, offering to provide funding to help states develop assessments based on those common standards.

The only common, multi-state academic standards I am aware of are those being developed through the Common Core Initiative. Therefore, it stands to reason that any state wishing to receive funding through the Race to the Top program will be mandated to adopt the Common Core – and to test its students based on those standards. In other words, the Common Core is being transformed from a voluntary, state-based initiative to a set of federal academic standards with corresponding federal tests.

Robert Scott, the Texas Commissioner of Education, voiced similar concerns in a letter to Sen. John Cornyn (R-TX). Commissioner Scott stated:

I believe that the true intention of this [common standards] effort is to establish one set of national education standards and national tests across the country. Originally sold to states as voluntary, states have now been told that participation in national standards and national testing would be required as a condition of receiving federal discretionary grant funding under the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act (ARRA) administered by the USDE. The effort has now become a cornerstone of the Administration’s education policy through the USDE’s prioritization of adoption of national standards and aligned national tests in receiving federal funds. The Secretary of Education has already reserved $650 million of ARRA funds for the production of these national tests.

The federal government has a spotty track record of getting states to raise academic achievement. The “No Child Left Behind” act was widely criticized for the perverse incentives the law created for states to lower their academic standards, and failed to produce meaningful increases in academic achievement. In encouraging the adoption of common standards by way of federal dollars, the Department of Education puts the country on a path toward national standards, backed with national tests, and perhaps ultimately, a national curriculum.

While some states’ standards are certainly sub-par, other states have rigorous academic content standards that are meeting the unique needs of their students. In Florida for example, students are making tremendous academic gains: Florida students have made significantly greater gains in math and reading than the national average, Hispanic students now outpace the statewide average of all students in 15 states, and the Sunshine State is beginning to see a narrowing of the achievement gap between white and minority students. Florida did this in spite of – not because of – federal intervention.

Had the “Common Core Initiative” remained truly voluntary, with states signing-on to the standards because of their merit and their success in raising academic achievement, the standards could have proven to be a useful guideline for states and parents. But with the federal government already positioning itself to take a hand in funding, shaping or administering the standards and tests, states and school districts stand to lose their educational autonomy, and American education will be the worse for it.