Opposition to the Obama Administration’s push for national standards and tests is growing. Yesterday, more than 100 education leaders—professors, policy leaders, public policy heads, former Members of Congress, and others—released a manifesto opposing Washington’s unprecedented overreach into what is taught in local schools.

Closing the Door on Innovation charges that “current U.S. Department of Education efforts to nationalize curriculum will stifle innovation and freeze into place an unacceptable status quo; end local and state control of schooling; lack a legitimate legal basis; and impose a one-size-fits-all model on America’s students.” The manifesto goes on to note:

Transferring power to Washington, D.C., will only further subordinate educational decisions to political imperatives. All presidential administrations—present and future, Democratic and Republican—are subject to political pressure. Centralized control in the U.S. Department of Education would upset the system of checks and balances between different levels of government, creating greater opportunities for special interests to use their national political leverage to distort policy. Our decentralized fifty-state system provides some limitations on special-interest power, ensuring that other voices can be heard, that wrongheaded reforms don’t harm children in every state, and that reforms that effectively serve children’s needs can find space to grow and succeed.

The effort to create national standards and tests began in early 2009, when the National Governor’s Association and the Council of Chief State School Officers began developing a set of math and English language arts standards as part of their Common Core Initiative.

Shortly thereafter, in July 2009, the Obama Administration released regulatory guidance for its Race to the Top (RTTT) program, a $4.35 billion initiative to award states for pursuing education reforms consistent with the Department of Education’s definition of reform. We wrote then that RTTT was “a first step toward the federal government creating national standards for the states.”

It was no surprise then that, during a speech to the National Governor’s Association in February 2010, President Obama stated:

I want to commend all of you for acting collectively through the National Governors Association to develop common standards that will better position our students for success. And today, I’m announcing steps to encourage and support all states to transition to college and career-ready standards on behalf of America’s students. First, as a condition of receiving access to Title I funds, we will ask all states to put in place a plan to adopt and certify standards that are college and career-ready in reading and math.

And a month later, the President released his blueprint for reauthorizing No Child Left Behind. The blueprint noted that the Administration aimed to provide a “cradle through college and career continuum” and contained strong language about the adoption of common standards and tests. The blueprint once again intimated that access to Title I funding for low-income school districts could be tied to adoption of national standards.

This is the wrong direction and will not spur educational excellence in America, as we have argued elsewhere:

  • National standards would fail to overcome the deficiencies of American K-12 education because they will not address the underlying problems, which are rooted in the public education system’s power and incentive structure. National standards would further misalign the incentives of states upward to Washington, not horizontally to parents and taxpayers, where it should be focused.
  • National standards would result in the standardization of mediocrity rather than excellence.
  • Many of those who favor of national standards cite variations in state standards as a reason to nationalize standards-setting. But the rigor and content of national standards would face the same pressure to scale down toward the mean among states, undercutting states with high quality standards, such as Massachusetts.
  • National standards would strengthen federal power over education while weakening schools’ direct accountability to parents and taxpayers. Washington’s half-century endeavor into education policy has failed. National standards would only ingrain this failure further.

The manifesto against national standards was spearheaded by Bill Evers, research fellow at Stanford University’s Hoover Institution. In a press release announcing the publication of the manifesto and its 100 renowned signatories, Shelby Steele of the Hoover Institution writes:

To some, a national curriculum sounds like a redemptive cure-all for the shame of our public schools’ failures, and a national curriculum gives the education establishment elite a powerful warrant for “doing good.” But we must not discard the proven constitutional discipline of our federalist system. Decentralization has been the engine of educational innovation. We shouldn’t trade our federalist birthright for a national-curriculum mess of pottage.

Steele is absolutely right. Instead of nationalizing what every child in every school will learn, federal policymakers should provide states with increased flexibility and freedom from red tape, allowing state and leaders to be more accountable to parents and taxpayers. States should work to increase the rigor of state standards and increase transparency of results to parents.