The controversy over the Common Core State Standards in K-12 education makes it clear that federalism isn’t about “states’ rights” but is actually about bringing government closer to the electorate.

For any state legislator or governor, talking the talk on federalism is easy enough–he or she can blame Washington, D.C. for imposing its mandates on them. Conjuring up the vision of an oppressive, Hunger Games-esque capital city is a great way to make the efforts of the local leaders seem heroic in comparison which may be true, as a crisis in Washington could domino down to the states. Just ask the Western states dealing with lower mineral lease payments by the federal government thanks to sequestration.

But it’s much harder for state leaders to make that case when they are the ones who let the federal government in the door in the first place. As an upcoming State Budget Solutions report outlines, the Common Core State Standards are a list of educational benchmarks in English language arts and mathematics that have been adopted by 45 states and the District of Columbia. The National Governors Association and the Council of Chief State School Officers developed the Common Core with financial assistance from the federal government and non-profit foundations.

In 2009, as part of the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act, the Obama administration offered $4.35 billion in competitive education grants in a program called Race to the Top. One factor that could earn a state points towards its application was “developing and adopting common standards,” so states jumped at the promise of federal money and quickly accepted the Common Core.

Now, after heading down the path of national education standards, some states are having second thoughts. Or, more accurately, citizens in many states–and moms in particular–are finding it hard to believe that their state representatives were willing to hand over local control of education. A full-on coup against the Common Core is afoot, and many state legislators are hard pressed to point the finger at Washington when their own voting records condemn them equally.  This is what federalism is all about.

Putting aside the merits or shortcomings of the Common Core, accepting national standards over which states have no control weakens the role that local officials have traditionally had in K-12 education. By pushing the level of decision-makers upward in government–or in this case, outside of government altogether–there is no citizens’ check on this essential government activity.

Federalism is a two way street. State legislators need to hold up their end of the bargain by being a check on the federal government. And they ought to do it not just to score political points but rather to ensure accountability to their constituents.




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