It has become a matter of conventional wisdom that the Common Core State Standards are a federal program in everything but name, even as the Arne Duncan and the administration keep making mouth noises about how it's totally not federal at all. Because that would be politically inexpedient. Also, it would be illegal.
The definitive Duncan statement on strategy and tactics of CCSS dispersal is still his speech last summer to the American Society of Newspaper Editors. In that speech, Duncan laid out the narrative that he wanted to associate with the Core. His argument that the CCSS are not federal boils down to a few points.
Schools Were Bad. Also, Liars.
Back in the day, our schools were lowering standards and lying to students. And you know what? He's not entirely wrong. He's just neglecting to mention what they were lying about, and why.
Back before CCSS, No Child Left Behind had a big gun to the head of every state education system in the country. If schools didn't show improvement on The Big Test, a huge handcart of hurt was going to be delivered unto them. Because ultimately, under NCLB, there were going to be two kinds of schools-- failing schools, and cheating schools.
So, yes. Some states sought to game the system by loosening standards to push back the day of reckoning. Some states found ways to lie to the feds about how well their students were doing. Because that seemed preferable to having their federal $$ support cut off. There was a huge lesson to be learned from this, but the current administration failed to learn it--
When the federal government puts huge life-or-death pressure into a system of high stakes testing, bad things happen to education.
But the feds learned a different lesson. If you don't have enough leverage, you can't force the states to react the way you want them to. So get more leverage. Because the schools are bad, and liars, too. So it's totally justified. The law is just a technicality, a speedbump, to be honored in letter, but not spirit.
Read the Fine Print
What Duncan told the Editors he has repeated since:
The federal government didn’t write them, didn’t approve them and
doesn’t mandate them, and we never will. Anyone who says otherwise is
either misinformed or willfully misleading.
He challenged the editors to find a single standard written by a federal hand, and he is correct in saying they never will. He does not observe that having federal authorities write statutes and regulations is so old school, anyway. CCSS was written the same way our food statutes, or military procurement statutes, our banking regulations, and lord knows what else-- they were written by the corporations that stand to profit from them.
Nor did the feds mandate them. The feds just made the states an offer that they couldn't refuse. Or, in Duncan's alternate universe, the states saw the standards and saw that the standards were Good, and so they adopted them out of sheer love of the education of children. States (that want their money and/or not to face penalties for being in violation of the NCLB laws) can choose any standards they want-- as long as the feds approve them. Go ahead and pick, states-- behind Door #1 are CCSS, already pre-approved by the feds or behind Door #2, your own standards, which may or may not pass muster and will cost your own money to develop. You are free to choose.
By Your Enemies Ye Shall Know Them
The continued reference to CCSS opponents as Tea Party fringe crazies is not just about marginalizing them. It's not just about marginalizing critics of the Core or trying to deflect attention away from the many non-crazy non-right wing critics that the Core has. It's not merely about the ludicrous suggestion that Diane Ravitch and Mercedes Schneider and Anthony Cody and 40,000 Bad Ass Teachers and the hundreds of thousands of letter-writing, opting-out, capitol-storming deeply upset Americans are all, somehow, members of the Tea Party Tin Hat Crowd.
It's also about deflecting attention away from the support that CCSS does in fact have from certain elements of the right. The Kochs and the ALECs and the portions of the hard right tat have figured out that there is serious money to be made. This administration would really rather not have you notice that some of their best collaborators on this signature initiative are in fact people who thought George Bush was too far center. (And those folks would probably just as soon not be noticed collaborating with Evil Socialist Obama.) Working with the Right? No, not us-- see the Right hates us!
But it is also-- also-- about discrediting the federal argument against CCSS. It is about saying, "Look-- you know who says that CCSS is federal overreach by a DC-run program to erase local control of schools? The Tea Party. And you know those guys are crazy pants. So if they're saying it, it must not be true."
Even conservative apologists for the Core like Rick Hess (American Enterprise Institute) and Michael Brickman (Fordham Institute) are making a bank shot of this argument. "The rollout was botched," they say, "because the administration made too much noise and woke up the crazy fringe people. If they had just kept their hands off it, those folks would have stayed out of it, and all would be fine." See, it's NOT federal, but federal enthusiasm for the Core made it LOOK federal.
The number one government cheerleader for CCSS remains the United States Secretary of Education. The face most associated with this initiative that was totes created by governors is... not one of those governors. Nope. The top federal schools guy. He's the one who tells newspaper editors how to cover it. Scolds California when they start to go off script. Wags a finger at any state that threatens to get away from the program. Makes every public appearance about how great CCSS are. Reminds us all that we must stay the course.
And the President is torn. Core supporters such as Hess suggested he NOT name check CCSS in the State of the Union Address (and why would he, since it's a state initiative), but he couldn't resist the urge to bring it up in substance, if not in name.
Where are the governors and teachers-- you know, the ones who personally wrote this? If I'd created something this influential, important and inspiring-- if I had built it with my own hands and sweat and blood, I would be by God on a leave of absence touring the country to preach and preach about how great it was. And yet, with the exception of Jeb "Looking For a National Issue To Build My Campaign On" Bush, we have no governors remotely approaching Duncan for the CCSS Sales Award.
The Other Narrative
However, if you want to see the administration admit that CCSS are federal, just look at the other narrative. The Civil Rights Issue of Our Generation Narrative.
Duncan was singing this song as far back as 2010, and to my ear it goes something like this:
Education is what is keeping poor minorities down. This administration has made a special commitment to lifting black folks out of poverty, and just as the federal government had to trample some states rights to stop Jim Crow, we may have to trample some states rights to get your children the same rigorous key-to-success education that those white suburban moms want for their kids.
They were lying to you for years, telling you they were educating your children when they didn't do a damn thing. We are going to make them stop. You want the best teachers and the best schools-- we are going to get them for you. You want your children given the same tools to get out of poverty that those white suburban moms get for their kids-- we are going to get them for you. Yes, this is a federal program-- it damn well has to be if it's going to work.
And it's here that the Tea Party Foes message fits again. The CCSS initiative bills itself as help for poor minority urban folk. You know who wants to trash it, make sure that those folks never get it? That would be white suburban moms and the Tea Party-- and we all know those Tea Party folks are not known for diversity or tolerance. If CCSS is the new Civil Rights Movement, then the Tea Party is the newest version of the same old enemies-- the people who scream states right as a cover for oppression, the enemies of a just and equal society.
It's a powerful message, and I'm not sure everybody in the anti-CCSS sphere fully grasps how powerful it is. It's a strong message, mostly because it really ought to be true. We have done a lousy job in some parts of some urban school districts, and there really should be a resolve to do better. But opponents of are so focused on how clearly the CCSS are a hollow lie, the fool's gold at the end of a fake educational rainbow, that we may not understand how appealing the promise they've been wrapped in can be, or that what they pretend to address in this narrative is a real problem that needs real solutions.
And this second narrative will not be expressed straight out, because--well, because federal control of education is illegal. But I can't imagine that anybody can believe that anything different is going on. The good news is that all Big Lies rest on a foundation made of smaller lies, and breaking down those lies is the best way to destroy the foundation for the big one.
The vulnerable lie here? The lie that opponents are a small group of fringe crazies (who are probably racists) is the vulnerable piece of foundation under the big lie, and as more and more people stand up and say, "I want a better education for all American children, and CCSS is not the way" or "I stand against CCSS, but not with the Tea Party," the harder it will be to maintain the fiction at the base of the Big Lie.