Are Common Core’s Uncommon Incentives Too Good for States to Pass up?
By Bob Williams, Joe Luppino-Esposito
Originally posted by State Budget Solutions on June 18, 2013
The implementation of the Common Core Standards Initiative is forcing states to evaluate their relationship with the federal government, particularly when it comes to K-12 education. Federal incentives offered to states for the adoption of the Common Core State Standards (CCSS) have become very attractive–so attractive that “voluntary participation in the program may be merely a nominal check on the centralization of American education. Federalism and local decision-making are at stake as the federal government gains more influence over education.
The CCSS are a list of specific and universal educational benchmarks in English language arts and mathematics that will replace the individual state K-12 education goals and requirements of each state that adopts them. This report will explain the issues surrounding the adoption of the CCSS and address the “voluntariness” question, the incentives and disincentives for states, and how the CCSS may affect the balance of federalism between states and the federal government. These issues are at the forefront as states grapple with whether to implement the CCSS and as some states, including Michigan and Indiana, reconsider their endorsement of the CCSS.
Common Core State Standards Initiative
The National Governors Association and the Council of Chief State School Officers developed the CCSS. The goal of establishing a “common core” was to set education standards that were acceptable to all involved states and help to increase the quality of elementary and secondary education that is provided throughout the country, despite shortcomings in some state school systems. The effort was bipartisan throughout its development.
The issue of CCSS implementation appears to have no clear left/right skew, with strong supporters and harsh critics from both sides of the aisle. Those opposed to the CCSS believe that the initiative is a costly, ineffective effort that will nationalize what would otherwise be a local concern, and may not actually lead to better education outcomes. Many of these debates surround the merits of creating national education standards as a way to compensate for schools that might not be up to snuff, while others contend that the standards themselves may be lacking. These are essential issues for education experts to tackle, and something that states should consider, perhaps, above all else.
An increasingly important sticking point comes from the “voluntary” nature of adopting the CCSS. Like many “voluntary” federal programs, the acceptance of the CCSS comes with potential funding–lots of it. This is occurring at the same time that several states have been awakened on the importance of federalism, thanks to the Supreme Court’s June 2012 ruling on Medicaid expansion. In NFIB v. Sebelius, the Court upheld the Affordable Care Act (ACA), including the individual mandate for health insurance. But seven justices also agreed that the federal government was not permitted to expand the joint state-federal Medicaid program by threatening states that it would eliminate all of its financial support for Medicaid that the states had previously received. The Court determined that such a penalty was unconstitutionally coercive. This marked the first time that the Supreme Court determined that a federal funding regime was coercive.
Previously, the 1987 decision in South Dakota v. Dole set the standard for the use of the federal spending power and how it can affect the states. The federal government wanted all states to adopt 21 years old as the legal drinking age. To do so, it conditioned the granting of five percent of the federal highway funds given to each state on making the change. The Supreme Court ruled that Congress’s spending power could be used in this way, so long as it was for “the general welfare,” relates to federal programs, the means of doing so were reasonable and clear, the condition is not unconstitutional, and it is not coercive. It is the final requirement that invalidated the Medicaid expansion in the ACA.
In other words, the federal government can use its spending power to encourage states to accept uniform standards and may withhold funds at least as high as five percent, but less than 100 percent. Therefore, the issue of voluntariness of states is a constitutional question that relies heavily on the financial details.
The NFIB v. Sebelius ruling on the Medicaid expansion has led some states to reconsider their relationship with the federal government, particularly in the way that the states rely on the federal government for financial support. State Budget Solutions reported earlier this year that federal aid to states has been substantially growing every year. In 2011, federal financial support to individual states ranged from 24 percent of the state’s budget to as high as 49 percent. Several states have cited this as a major factor in rejecting the expansion despite promised federal funds.
Nonetheless, states rarely turn down the chance to accept “free money” from the federal government. Funding for education is no different. The primary financial incentive for states to accept the CCSS comes from the Race to the Top Fund (RTT). The fund, created by the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009 and totaling $4.35 billion, offers competitive grants to all 50 states based on a number of criteria. “Developing and adopting common standards” would give a state 40 of a possible 500 points. As a result, 45 states and the District of Columbia have adopted the CCSS, allowing them to check off one category to make their application more competitive. Although specifically adopting the CCSS was not a requirement, the states that have not done so never even applied for RTT funding.
To date, 21 states and the District of Columbia have received some form of RTT grants from the federal government. In these later phases of RTT funding, some local districts are also able to apply and have been awarded grants.
There is also the indirect financial support for states in developing the CCSS. The tests to be used by states in evaluating students under the CCSS were developed by two nonprofit groups comprised of state leaders and were supported by $360 million in federal government money. This made it easier for states to accept the new standards, as it would not require them to create a new evaluation system as well.
No Child Left Behind (NCLB), the federal education law, has faced controversy since Congress enacted it in 2002. The law requires all schools receiving federal funds to evaluate students with rigorous standardized tests. Schools that do not show adequate progress on those tests, face penalties, including decreased funding. Although the current administration has not specifically come out against NCLB, Congress’s inability to reauthorize NCLB has given the federal Department of Education the opportunity to set its own standards through RTT. In addition, the administration has allowed states to request a waiver from NCLB requirements, and as of May 20, 2013, 37 states and the District of Columbia have been granted waivers.
A primary requirement for receiving a waiver is that the state educational agency “must adopt college- and career-ready standards.” Indiana’s recent decision to “pause” implementation of the Common Core Standards has ignited a debate about Indiana’s ability to maintain its NCLB waiver if it were to eliminate CCSS. Yet the “college- and career-ready standards” required for states to receive an NCLB waiver have not precluded the states that have rejected the CCSS-including Alaska, Minnesota, and Virginia.
Education and Federalism
It is important to remember that, traditionally, education had been a concern of states and localities.
The most common structure of a local school district consists of a Board of Education, with members either directly elected or appointed by a popularly elected local entity, which necessarily encourages accountability at this most basic level of government. As states began to develop their own public education systems throughout American history, the federal government was essentially absent until the creation of land-grant colleges in 1862. Federal involvement in K-12 education did not arise until the passage of the Smith-Hughes Act in 1917, which helped to fund agricultural vocational programs in high schools.
The Department of Education is itself explicit in defining its role, stating that it does not “establish schools and colleges; develop curricula; set requirements for enrollment and graduation; determine state education standards; or develop or implement testing to measure whether states are meeting their education standards.” Today, federal monies account for only 12.3 percent of funding for elementary and secondary education.
Opponents of the CCSS believe that this local control will be eroded if the CCSS go into effect, as “federal fingerprints” are already all over the initiative. Some legal analysts believe that the Department of Education may have already overstepped its statutory restrictions in the way it has offered federal grants and conditional waivers to NCLB. On both sides of the aisle, analysts note the disappointing results of NCLB in the conversation about education and federalism. As the first major experiment in standard-setting at the federal level, some critics find that such centralization is flawed; others believe that it can be more robust.
Ultimately, state leaders must take responsibility for opting into the Common Core Standards, or not. Although it may be hard to ignore the sparkle from the pile of federal money available to states that adopt CCSS, states must recognize that the only pressure to accept the CCSS comes from their own failures to appropriately fund their own education systems.
On the issue of voluntariness, the CCSS do not even approach the line of being too coercive for states to resist. Under the precedents of South Dakota v. Dole and NFIB v. Sebelius, the competitive grants offered under RTT were not unconstitutional, and the funding dollars, although in the aggregate total $4.35 billion, are not significant enough to have the “gun to the head” effect that would make it invalid. RTT funds are new federal grants with a finite dollar limitation, as large as it may be. This can be easily contrasted with NFIB v. Sebelius, when the Court determined that the federal threat to revoke all Medicaid funding already being given to states was unduly coercive. Furthermore, adoption of the CCSS was not required of applicants for RTT money, although it was one of several factors.
It is also evident that RTT funding was being offered to states precisely for the purpose of encouraging adoption of the CCSS. As State Budget Solutions has recognized before, there are significant costs involved in adopting the CCSS, and RTT funds are often applied to make some of these major investments. What sense would it make for a state that is not adopting the standards to accept money to do so?
Just because the federal government offers money to states to push its own agenda does not mean that a state must apply for it, much less be entitled to be awarded the funds.
The other incentives-the federal financial support for developing the CCSS-related tests and the NCLB waivers-are not enough to move the dial. The money given to the multi-state consortia advanced the CCSS agenda, but did not adversely affect the states who are not interested in the groups’ mission. NCLB waivers have been given to three of the five non-CCSS adopters; Texas is still awaiting a decision; and Nebraska has not applied for a waiver.
Furthermore, the mere existence of a reasonable debate combined with the lack of adoption from at least five states and the concerns among others suggest that the situation has not crossed the line of being unduly coercive. In fact, much like the issue of Medicaid expansion, the CCSS debate has forced state governments to be more cognizant of their sovereignty.
This is not a mandate that state and local politicians can claim is being foisted upon them. Therefore, states must hold up their end of the federalism bargain and make what they feel is the right decision for state residents.
The CCSS need to be properly evaluated by state education experts. This has already resulted in varied outcomes. Virginia, which shares many of the same principles and framework of CCSS, still opted to avoid full adoption and implementation. Virginia instead opted to keep their current system, which state leaders suggested was superior to the CCSS. Critics have said that Massachusetts lowered its state education standards in order to adopt the CCSS.
In Indiana, a state that had previously committed to the CCSS but did not apply for RTT funding, leaders have stopped implementation in order to further evaluate the standards. Michigan took a similar action in the current budget season by deciding to “pause” implementation of the CCSS by restricting the state department of education from spending any money on the initiative.
States must also consider the fiscal implications of moving to new standards. The cost estimates vary, as State Budget Solutions has explained. As states continue to suffer from fiscal difficulties, it is important to weigh the financial burden of adopting CCSS, or not adopting the standards, for that matter. When pushing the pause button, Indiana lawmakers also cited a need to study the costs of implementation.
Finally, states must realize that even if the CCSS are excellent and the costs of implementation are feasible, there is a degree of state and local control that is lost any time the federal government is involved in education. Some state leaders are justifiably concerned that the ability to adjust the CCSS, once implemented, may be too difficult. There is a clear tradeoff that directly affects the federalism balance that has traditionally been maintained in elementary and secondary education. The education of children has always been a primary concern of families and localities, and government structures have allowed for very direct accountability for those who make decisions on curriculum and standards. There are already ample ways that states can make school systems more accountable to students and taxpayers that do not involve national standards.
If state leaders believe that the implementation of the CCSS is in fact a “federal power grab” as so many have repeated, then they ought to reject it-so long as doing so outweighs the potential benefits. It’s important that state leaders recognize the relationship between these two levels of government and how each can help, or hurt, the other. To what degree the CCSS may alter this relationship is unclear, but if it is like most federal programs, local control will eventually lose out.
The debate on the Common Core Standards provides a unique opportunity for states to recognize that they still retain the power to make decisions that will affect the future leaders of their communities. Government at all levels is involved in providing elementary and secondary education, traditionally a state and local function.. Though there is plenty of encouragement from the federal government for states to adopt the CCSS, this does not mean that states have a false choice, as the actions of lawmakers in Michigan, Virginia and elsewhere illustrate. State leaders face an important, real decision that will require them to consider the education government will provide to state residents, the cost of doing so, and the way that federalism will be affected.
There is substantial debate regarding the people and institutions involved in creating the Common Core Standards–and the alleged lack of involvement from the states in doing so. This report will only consider the financial issues involved in “voluntarily” adopting the standards since they have already been created. States can, and have, reversed their decision in fully adopting the standards since they have been finalized.
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