No to Common Core, Yes to State Competition in Education

New Orleans charter school's new principal works to improve reading and math skills

New Orleans charter school’s new principal works to improve reading and math skills

There’s been some good writing on Common Core—e.g. by Richard Reinsch on this site and by my ex-colleague Rick Hess in National Affairs.  And there’s been a lot of hyperventilation over it, mostly in connection with de facto presidential contender Jeb Bush’s “doubling down” on his support for Common Core: can he really be a conservative? Isn’t Common Core a liberal conspiracy, hatched in D.C. to take over local schools? Etc. What’s been missing is the voice of a true education expert: me.

I know three things about K-12 education:

  1. The Elementary and Secondary Education Act (EASA), the first major federal funding program for K-12 education, was enacted in 1965. Gains in measured student achievement over the half-century: zero, give or take a half percent. Meanwhile, the per-pupil cost has tripled.
  2. Over the aforementioned timeframe, under Republican and Democratic administrations, we have experimented with very loose federal requirements; with very stringent mandates; with “accountability”; and with absolutely everything in-between. Consistent result: zero gains, rising costs. It might have been better, Rick Hess concludes, if Common Core had never seen the light of day. The same is true of every education reform (proposal) of the past fifty years.
  3. Democratic control of institutions (including schools) breeds bureaucratization, which in turn means declining performance. (That’s because the bureaucracy will have to run the place to pacify its “stakeholders,” in disregard of consumers.) Increased centralization produces increased bureaucratization and increased failure. With respect to education John Chubb and Terry Moe demonstrated these dynamics a quarter-century ago; there’s no shred of evidence to suggest that they were wrong.

Truth be told, that’s about all I know about public education. But it’s all one needs to know. The question isn’t whether Common Core  is “conservative” or whether it was or wasn’t “state-led.” The question is whether it will work, and fifty years of experience supply the unequivocal answer: no.

Anyone who is remotely serious about this stuff has to tackle the (federal) democratic control problem. For fifty years, we’ve fiddled with the control dial. But there is no right point. Turn it to zero, by “block granting” federal funds? If that’s the “true” conservative’s Common Core alternative I have a friendly amendment: cut the amount by ten percent and send the check directly to the NEA. Because that’s where the block grant will end up, net of transaction costs.

What matters isn’t the degree of control but the kind of control. You want to replace political controls, which build bureaucracies, with market controls, which decimate them. You want way more consumer choice and competition, and way less intergovernmental “accountability.”

To that end you have to cut not just the federal strings but the federal funds. I’m entirely open to James Buckley’s proposal to wipe out the funds entirely but if that’s a bridge too far here’s another friendly amendment, this one to any future federal education “reform” (Common Core, No Stone Left Unturned, Excellence by Edict):

“We, your Congress, believe that this law will work like a charm. (Not that we’ve read it, but still.) However, if you, dear school district or state, do not share that belief, we will pay you—on a one-time basis—triple the education funds you received in [base year]. No more strings, and no more money. Good luck, and best wishes.”

Would that work? I don’t know; but that’s a step up from doubling down on certain failure. And if a proposal along these lines were to spark debate, that debate would actually be worth having.

Reader Discussion

Law & Liberty welcomes civil and lively discussion of its articles. Abusive comments will not be tolerated. We reserve the right to delete comments - or ban users - without notification or explanation.

on March 18, 2015 at 11:45:14 am

[…] No to Common Core, Yes to State Competition in Education […]

read full comment
Image of Clarifying Judicial Restraint - Freedom's Floodgates
Clarifying Judicial Restraint - Freedom's Floodgates
on March 18, 2015 at 11:58:37 am

No; there is at least one thing more Professor Greve knows, and that we all need to be aware of:

Those are in the points recently discussed (and his short book) by James Buckley on the subsidiarization of the states by the Federal Administrative State - of which this issue is one component.

read full comment
Image of R Richard Schweitzer
R Richard Schweitzer
on March 18, 2015 at 13:40:14 pm

Can we add another factor in decline of American education and why Fed $$$$'s don't appear to do diddly squat?

School(s) of Education - they seem to produce some of the most under-prepared, mal-educated, ideologically disposed actors in the education world. When comparing them to the teachers I was fortunate enough to have as a young student, the contrast is striking. oy vey, could I tell some stories.

read full comment
Image of gabe
on March 18, 2015 at 19:14:21 pm

While we should cut "not just the federal strings but the federal funds," we must also increase the formative involvement of competent educators in the creation of any resultant system or governance; such has been grossly lacking heretofore. Until the current state is altered, we should also require all federal agency assistant directors and above take their home state's common core equivalent educational assessment and publish the results in the Federal Register.

read full comment
Image of Guy
on March 19, 2015 at 01:14:01 am

What we have today in public education is the apex of the onslaught,over the last 70 plus years,of Cultural Marxism. With the "long march through the universities" and the capturing,for the most part,of the Public Educational System,the Left,in America,has put themselves into a position where,by and large,education has become indoctrination with their agenda the thing being indoctrinated. The objective is to dumb down young minds to instead of thinking and reasoning for themselves to,instead, accept what is taught to them as gospel. And what is taught to most young minds today? !. To obey 2. Not to question authority. 3. To accept what the matrix says is reality. 4. The State,not the family or oneself, is where one goes to solve one's problems. In other words the perfect debt and tax serf. Or,as the dictators of the old USSR would describe it, the "perfect soviet man."

read full comment
Image of libertarian jerry
libertarian jerry
on March 19, 2015 at 16:23:06 pm

In further support of Greve (and decentralization):


This independent study (unbiased) shows the extensive improvements in student learning cf. TPS by Charter Schools.

These are even departures from "State" bureaucracies.

Scan back over what has become the "education system" from the facilities parents created (as small as one room), to "consolidated" county schools, to school districts; school boards; state boards - the "institutionalization" with internal guild hierarchies conjoined with political bureaucracies - into "The System." Charters dent the "system."

read full comment
Image of R Richard Schweitzer
R Richard Schweitzer
on March 19, 2015 at 22:23:59 pm

There are no "Fed $$$$." There is no "government" money.

There is (currently) the Federal power of redirection of your money, my money, his & her money, "their" money. There is no Constitutional authority for such redirection; but, with the consent or acceptance of the electorate, that requirement does not apply to The Federal Administrative State.

read full comment
Image of R Richard Schweitzer
R Richard Schweitzer
on March 24, 2015 at 21:34:25 pm

What accounts for the alleged plateauing of school performance since 1965?

1. Maybe selection bias? After all, what percentage of kids completed high school in 1965, and what percentage complete it today? Rightly or not, we expect all kids to complete school today (even though an astonishing percentage do not). But in 1965 it was widely acknowledged that plenty of people would drop out of school and become "unskilled labor" -- especially black people.

2. Maybe the quality of teaching? In 1965 schools had a virtual monoposny on one segment of the labor force: women. The most brilliant women in the nation would be teaching high school. Today, those women are running corporations and government agencies -- while schools are left to hunt for talent at the bottom of the pay scale. Net result: National productivity up, but not school productivity -- which is pretty much what we would expect from an increasingly efficient labor market.

3. Maybe other social objectives? For example, how credible is the idea of a black president -- and how credible was it in 1965? In the intervening 50 years, we've had massive social intervention, often administered through schools. If people fail to record improved outcomes from schools over the past 50 years, perhaps this reflects a failure to measure certain relevant variables.

In short, Greve's argument that government intervention has been shown to produce no results since 1965, all else being equal, is entirely credible. But could I see the hands of anyone who thinks that all else has been held equal since 1965? Does anyone believe this premise? If not, then Greve's argument pretty much collapses.

read full comment
Image of nobody.really

Law & Liberty welcomes civil and lively discussion of its articles. Abusive comments will not be tolerated. We reserve the right to delete comments - or ban users - without notification or explanation.