Friday, September 7, 2012

Dr. John Hill: Is relatively small federal funding controlling Alabama education?

  When Alabama’s State Board of Education voted 7-2 to adopt Common Core State Standards two years ago, it joined 45 states and three U.S. territories. The Common Core, created by the National Governors Association’s Center for Best Practices and the Council of Chief State School Officers, standardized education curricula among the states with the aim of better preparing students for college and the modern workforce.

  One year later, the Board reconvened to consider rescinding its earlier decision. Even though Gov. Robert Bentley joined the opposition on the grounds that he believed the standards were tantamount to a federal takeover of public education, the Board voted 6-3 to follow the Common Core.

  This issue reared its head again in August when the Alabama State Department of Education (ALSDE) began work to seek a waiver from the U.S. Department of Education to end required Adequate Yearly Progress (AYP) reporting. The AYP requirement under No Child Left Behind (NCLB) requires that states make measurable progress toward 100-percent proficiency in reading and math or face a possible reduction in federal education funds.

  Alabama and other states applying for the NCLB waiver must declare whether they have already adopted or are planning to adopt the Common Core standards. If Alabama joins the 33 states that have already received this waiver, Alabama would be exempt from AYP reporting but would effectively be required to adopt the Common Core Standards. To make matters more serious, the U.S. Department of Education has signaled that future funding for low-income schools may eventually be linked to the adoption of the Common Core.

  But Alabama has already adopted the Common Core Standards, so what’s the big deal? Although the Common Core has been promoted as a voluntary program, the Obama Administration essentially linked participation in Common Core to billions of dollars in grants offered through the Race to the Top Fund, which was part of the 2009 stimulus.

  In short, the waiver has the potential to prevent Alabama from modifying its own educational standards in the future.

  The federal government stands to gain tremendous sway in Alabama’s education through the implementation of a common national education standard, and many Alabamians may be shocked to find out what a sweetheart deal Uncle Sam is getting for such power. Even though the federal government has authorized funding for key portions of local school district budgets since it passed the Elementary and Secondary School Act of 1965, the amount of money given to states is not as large as some believe. According to ALSDE, about one in every six dollars of the $7.3 billion spent on Alabama’s K-12 education in the 2010-2011 school year came from the federal government. Yet for this relatively small percentage of assistance, the federal government already has a heavy hand in the educational standards for Alabama’s children.  

  This possible takeover of public education curricula raises serious legal questions. According to three different federal acts—the General Education Provisions Act, the Department of Education Organization Act, and the aforementioned Elementary and Secondary School Act of 1965, as amended by the NCLB—federal departments and agencies are generally banned from “directing, supervising, or controlling elementary and secondary school curriculum, programs of instruction, and instructional materials.”

  Even if incorporating the Common Core standards and getting an AYP waiver substantially benefited public education in Alabama, these benefits may come at the cost of Alabama making its own educational decisions in the future. Alabama’s request for an NCLB waiver should contain language explicitly stating that it is not seeking a waiver from established protections against the federal government controlling state education. As Gov. Bentley has said, “We want our standards to be extremely strong. They just don’t need to be tied to a federal core.”

  This article was published by the Alabama Policy Institute.

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