Education Secretary Arne Duncan

During his otherwise ordinary remarks yesterday at the National Press Club, education secretary Arne Duncan said something quite extraordinary.

It came as he was announcing the 19 finalists for the second round of the Obama administration’s Race to the Top grant competition:

We arrived in Washington at a time when America was deeply divided over the proper federal role in educational policy.… We are a very long way from the classroom in Washington, and if we have learned one thing from [No Child Left Behind], it’s that one-size-fits-all remedies generally don’t work.

That’s a remarkable statement coming from an administration now orchestrating one of the biggest federal overreaches into education policy in nearly half a century. Consider, too, that it’s coming from an administration whose solution to raising academic achievement is to establish the most imposing one-size-fits-all policy imaginable.

The requirement that states move toward adopting national standards and tests by August 2 in order to qualify for a Race to the Top grant is a huge federal overreach into states’ educational-decision making authority. Standards-setting is the domain of states and local school districts. The administration’s push for national standards infringes on this long-held understanding of federalism.

Strangely, Duncan argued that states are adopting national standards “without a federal dollar.” Yet Race to the Top, created out of the so-called “stimulus” bill, was certainly made up of federal dollars — $4.35 billion, in fact. Moreover, the Department of Education ’s “blueprint” to reauthorize No Child Left Behind suggests that the $14.5 billion Title I program, which provides federal funding to low-income school districts, could be tied to the adoption of national standards.

Secretary Duncan also stated that Race to the Top has unleashed an “avalanche” of reform. Race to the Top has certainly motivated some states to make modest reforms to long-stagnant education systems. New York, in hopes of winning a grant, raised its cap on charter schools to double the number permitted to operate. Colorado reformed its tenure laws and now judges teacher effectiveness on more frequent evaluations based in part on student performance.

The Obama administration may have started an avalanche, but in the end, the opportunity for meaningful education reform may get buried. RTTT has started a new slide of federal control into local schools, ignoring the guardrail of normal legislative procedure and using the Education Department’s gargantuan allocation of “stimulus” dollars to impose national standards on states. Already we have seen a clear indication that these standards won’t be immune to the demands of the teachers’ unions, who, because the administration requires union “buy-in” on states’ plans, have set the high-water mark for reform in Race to the Top.

Duncan’s remarks yesterday were centered on the notion that the Obama administration is leading a “quiet revolution” in education. But the requirement for states to garner union support to be eligible for a Race to the Top grant has blunted the potential for meaningful reform. The move toward national education standards and tests will certainly do more to empower bureaucrats in Washington than parents. Sadly, that’s anything but revolutionary.

Cross-posted at The Corner.