What should a school principal expect after working “tirelessly” to help struggling students achieve? Certainly not to be asked to step down. However, this is exactly what can happen once the federal government gets involved.

Despite support from parents, teachers, and administrators for Principal Joyce Irvine of Wheeler Elementary School in Burlington, Vermont, school administration is being forced to remove her. This is so the school will be eligible to receive federal stimulus money through programs such as the Obama Administration’s Race to the Top. Reports The New York Times:

Ms. Irvine was removed because the Burlington School District wanted to qualify for up to $3 million in federal stimulus money for its dozen schools.

And under the Obama administration rules, for a district to qualify, schools with very low test scores, like Wheeler, must do one of the following: close down; be replaced by a charter (Vermont does not have charters); remove the principal and half the staff; or remove the principal and transform the school.

And since Ms. Irvine had already “worked tirelessly,” as her evaluation said, to “successfully” transform the school last fall to an arts magnet, even she understood her removal was the least disruptive option.

The U.S. Department of Education refuses to take the blame for Joyce’s displacement, claiming that Vermont does not have to take federal money. However, because the state is accepting federal dollars, it is being made to play by Washington’s rules. Unfortunately, one-size-fits-all federal rules can all too easily back schools into a corner, as has happened in this situation.

Beyond being obligated to conform to the turnaround measures, as in the case at Wheeler, the Obama Administration is also making federal funding contingent on states’ adoption of national education standards. Thus, states are not only being incentivized to comply with increased administrative control of their schools; they are also being strong-armed into allowing Washington to oversee what is taught in the classroom.

Education reform is necessary—but not in the form of greater federal control. Manipulating states to comply with measures that take no thought of the unique needs of schools will only harm students, as Joyce’s story illustrates. Real reform gives greater power to key stakeholders such as parents, teachers, principals, and communities. On the other hand, if federal power continues to increase, cases like that of Joyce will likely not be uncommon.