Race to Top costs states, endangers democracy

Jul 14, 2011 by


We have a malignancy feeding on our democracy, and we have few leaders willing to fight it. State and local governments join trade associations, or pay for government officials to partake in such organizations, that take money from special interests. Then the trade associations engage in advocacy on behalf of the special interests. That corruption affects education policy most of all, and its most notorious example is Race to the Top and the Common Core State Standards Initiative.

Common Core is a project of the National Governors Association and the Council of Chief State School Officers, and it is funded by special interests such as the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation. These groups are trade associations — not governmental entities. They get dues money, usually in the tens of thousands of dollars, from states, but they get far more money from special interests. From 2008 through 2009, for example, the Gates Foundation alone provided $35 million towards the Common Core project, including to NGA contractors.

Then, along with its Obama administration allies, it foisted the standards on the American people in a manner that is wholly at odds with our democratic values. The administration used the 2009 stimulus bill to get a $4.35 billion executive earmark from Congress. It permitted states to compete for that money if they “committed” to the standards, and it defined commitment as dependent solely on executive action, thereby cutting state legislatures out of the process. It gave the states only two months to review the standards. All but a handful of states quickly “committed,” so the administration achieved its goal without a vote on the standards in Congress or any state legislature.

The standards have quality problems. They have not been field-tested. They open the door for bias and indoctrination. They radically change language-arts curricula. And Race to the Top calls for testing and assessments that will inflict a cost burden on the states and take up valuable classroom instruction time.

Race to the Top and the standards are similar to other federal initiatives. The federal government pushes initiatives and offers states immediate money that makes a governor’s balance sheet look good. But those initiatives invariably have strings attached that cost the states far more money down the road. State and local governments will have to pay billions of dollars to align standardized testing, curricula and teacher training with the standards.

But some public servants are standing up for our democratic values. In rejecting Race to the Top funding, Texas Gov. Rick Perry said it would be “foolish and irresponsible to place our children’s future in the hands of unelected bureaucrats and special interest groups thousands of miles away in Washington, virtually eliminating parents’ participation in their children’s education.” And last month, in withdrawing his state from the school officers council, Texas Commissioner of Education Robert Scott said that the “organization’s advocacy for national standards and national tests is not in the best interest of the state of Texas and in my opinion, the nation.” He said the standards and tests were “developed largely in secret through a process led by special interest groups who are not elected and who lack any public accountability.”;

The Palmetto State also has leaders who are fighting the good fight on behalf of democracy and responsible government. Gov. Nikki Haley and Education Superintendent Mick Zais have refused to take Race to the Top money. Gov. Haley has ceased paying dues to the National Governors Association. And Sen. Mike Fair is leading the efforts to bring about a legislative vote on the standards and to conduct a cost analysis of the standards prior to their implementation.

Those must have been daunting decisions. The Gates Foundation alone spent $373 million on its education agenda in 2009. In addition to NGA and the school officers council, it has advanced the state standards through such private entities as the National Association of State Boards of Education, the Council of the Great City Schools and the Council of State Governments. It even gave $500,000 to NBC Universal (yes, the broadcasting conglomerate) to support a “National Education Summit.”;

Our battle will continue in January, when the Legislature reconvenes to consider Sen. Fair’s proposals to put the issue of state standards back into the hands of the people’s elected representatives in Columbia, not the special interests and bureaucrats far away in Washington.

Mr. Mack, who retired in December as director of public policy for the S.C. Baptist Convention, is S.C. director of American Principles in Action.

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