While 46 states have jumped on the national education standards bandwagon, it’s not too late to hit the brakes. We’ve been down this road before.

During the 1990s, the push to nationalize standards and testing reached a fever pitch. There were the infamous national history standards, which were so poor (no mention of the Apollo 11 moon landing; not a single mention of the Constitution; the absence of Alexander Graham Bell, Thomas Edison, Albert Einstein, and the Wright brothers) that the U.S. Senate rejected the resolution 99–1.

President Bill Clinton’s Goals 2000: Educate America proposal, coordinated with his 1994 reauthorization of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA), called for states to establish standards and tests aligned with national models. While technically voluntary, ESEA funding was conditioned on states shifting toward standards-based reform.

In what sounds remarkably similar to the Obama Administration’s Race to the Top grants, in 1994, Education Week described the Clinton-era effort as one in which “states agree to set content and performance standards and draft reform plans in exchange for federal grants.” And as The Washington Post wrote in 1995, the effort had significant support:

It was once hailed as the next great hope to improve the nation’s schools, a landmark measure embraced by nearly every governor, approved with bipartisan votes in Congress and praised by countless leaders in education and business.

But despite the significant momentum behind the effort, the idea of establishing national standards and tests was ultimately rejected. States and local school districts understood that Washington was overstepping its bounds to an unprecedented extent and chose instead to retain their educational sovereignty.

The eulogy of the Common Core national standards initiative could read just the same. If state and local leaders, school superintendents and teachers, parents, and taxpayers fight against this latest—and perhaps greatest—federal overreach into what is taught in schools across America, it just might.

The movement to nationalize standards and testing—and ultimately curricula—is costly in terms of liberty, not to mention dollars. State leaders who believe in limited government and liberty should resist this imposition of centralized standards. States should consider these three strategies:

  1. Determine how the decision was made to cede the state’s standard-setting authority. For most states, the state board of education is the body that made the decision to adopt the Common Core State Standards. State boards of education were elected or appointed to govern state education policy, not to surrender educational authority to a centralization movement. Advocates of federalism should be concerned that their state officials have ceded authority over the standards and assessments that drive what is taught in local schools.
  2. Prohibit new spending for standards implementation. Making pedagogical and curricular changes, revamping professional development, and aligning textbooks and assessments to adhere to the Common Core will burden already-strained state budgets. The Pioneer Institute estimates that, cumulatively, states will be on the hook for about $16 billion in implementation costs. To assess the full fiscal impact, state leaders should request an independent cost analysis of national standards adoption to inform taxpayers about the short- and long-term costs of the overhaul. At the same time, governors and state policymakers should refuse to expend any state or local resources to align state standards, tests, and curricula with the Common Core national standards and tests.
  3. Determine how to reverse course. The rushed adoption of the Common Core in many cases preceded the election of 2010, which brought in new governors, legislators, and board members. Conservative leaders should be concerned about the authority handed to centralizers by their predecessors and investigate how to bring standards and curriculum control back into the hands of state leaders.

We’ve been here before. States ultimately chose the path of liberty in determining education content in the 1990s and should do so again. Instead of abdicating responsibility for standards and assessments—and ceding more control over education to Washington and national organizations—state leaders should exit this national standards boondoggle. It’s not too late.