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Dan Liljenquist: Common Core conflicts with federal education statutes

Published: Thursday, Sept. 4 2014 12:00 a.m. MDT

Ten-year-old Sarah Valentine of Syracuse declares that she is not common while standing with Common Core opponents at the State Board of Education office in Salt Lake City in this Friday, Aug. 2, 2013 file photo.

Laura Seitz, Deseret News

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Gov. Bobby Jindal made news last week when he announced that he, in his official capacity as governor of Louisiana, is suing the U.S. Department of Education over its attempt to use federal grants to induce states to implement the Common Core academic standards. Given the department’s extra-legal “Race to the Top” initiative, which flouts 50 years of established congressional policy prohibiting federal direction or control of education standards and curriculum, Gov. Jindal’s lawsuit is both justified and necessary to preserve state and local authority over education policy. Left unchallenged, the weight of this “Common Core” precedent would undoubtedly lead to further federal incursions into state and local curriculum decisions, extinguishing what is left of our educational autonomy at the state level.

The Common Core standards grew out of a partnership between the National Governors Association and the Council of Chief State School Officers and were voluntarily adopted by over 40 states with the stated goal of improving the quality of public education. In Jindal’s words, “the Common Core standards were designed to define the knowledge and skills students should have in their K-12 education in order to graduate from high school and to succeed in entry-level, credit-bearing college courses and in workforce training programs.”

Leaving aside the many concerns about the specific standards themselves, these were noble goals. Most people, including many of the opponents of the Common Core standards, recognize the need for educational benchmarks in our public schools. Tracking educational performance to established standards is not anathema to most opponents of Common Core.

Jindal’s primary concern, which echoes my own, is that the U.S. Department of Education has, unilaterally, altered the education policy of the United States, ignoring both the principles of federalism enshrined in the 10th Amendment and established federal laws, by tying federal funding to adopting Common Core standards.

The 10th Amendment reserves to the states all “powers not delegated to the United States by the Constitution.” On its own website, the Department of Education acknowledges, “the federal role in education is limited. Because of the 10th Amendment, most education policy is decided at the state and local levels.”

Under the General Education Provisions Act of 1965, federal law unambiguously declares “no provision of any applicable program shall be construed to authorize any department, agency, officer, or employee of the United States to exercise any direction, supervision, or control over the curriculum, program of instruction, administration, or personnel of any educational institution, school, or school system ….”

In 1979, when it established the Department of Education, Congress stated “it is the intention of the Congress in the establishment of the department to protect the rights of state and local governments … in the areas of educational policies and administration of programs and to strengthen and improve control of such governments … over their own educational programs and policies.” These laws are still in force and should govern the actions of the Department of Education.

However, instead of following clearly established laws, the Department of Education has chosen to interpret language in the 2009 American Recovery and Reinvestment Act authorizing federal education grants to “support the efforts of the states to improve standards, assessment and outcomes” as the rationale to, in the words of Jindal’s lawsuit, “nationalize education curriculum by compelling a uniform set of standards and assessments.” This is a massive departure from the plain language of federal education statutes and an affront to state sovereignty. Gov. Jindal, as a steward of the state of Louisiana, is right to pursue this case. I hope other governors will join him.

Dan Liljenquist is a former state senator and former U.S. Senate candidate.

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