The Political Dimension of Education

By Watson Scott SwailPresident & Senior Research Scholar, Educational Policy Institute

I began my post-Memorial Day morning by turning on my favorite TV show, Morning Joe, with former Republican Congressman Joe Scarborough. One of the guests was Virginia Governor Bob McDonnell and the subject came to Race to the Top Funds. The US Department of Education is providing over $4 billion in funds to states that agree and prepare a broad plan to (a) adopt standards and assessments, (b) build data systems, (c) recruit and develop effective teachers and principals, and (d) turn around low-performing schools. A tall order, for sure.

The first round of RTTT Funds were awarded to Tennessee ($500 million) and Delaware ($100 million). Round two will divvy up $3.4 billion, with applications due today. A handful of states have opted not to apply for Round 2 funds of Race to the Top Funds, including the Commonwealth of Virginia. During Morning Joe, McDonnell, a Republican and former Attorney General of the state during Tim Kaine’s Governorship, said that Virginia couldn’t possibly opt for funding that required the state to adopt national curriculum standards. He said that Virginia has very high standards, and the state wouldn’t agree to sign on to national standards that were lower than Virginia’s.

Over the past several months, I have travelled with the Council of State Governments, The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, the National Governor’s Association, the Council of Chief State School Officers, and other groups talking to state legislators across the country about the Common Core State Standards for K-12. We discussed with legislators, at length, that these standards are a floor, not a ceiling and that states should strive to improve upon the standards, not “meet” them. This is clear in ANY of Common Core language. States, like Virginia, have all the latitude available to work beyond the standards and have their own that supercede the Common Core State Standards.

McDonnell is clearly wrong in this venture and it is bothersome that he is picking up the political axe held by former Virginia Governor George Allen, who also refused to take federal funds back in the 1990s. Allen opted out of the Goals 2000 program, which was championed by Bill Clinton but initiated by Republican George H.W. Bush. A state loses when it refused federal money, especially of this magnitude. And the reason given by McDonnell showcases that this is all about politics. His Administration sees this as a federalization of education, although even the NGA, who is leading the Common State Standards movement and is chaired by Republican Governor James Douglas, clearly states that this is a state project on a national level, not a federal project superimposed onto states.

Perhaps McDonnell was more correct in why he opted out of RTTT. “It is obvious from the critique Virginia received from the Round One grant process that we will be marked down dramatically in the peer review process to the point that we will not be competitive” (Education Week, May 26, 2010). They weren’t ready. If Virginia had done better in Round 1 would they be more inclined to participate in Round 2? It’s akin to a little boy, knowing he can’t win, taking his soccer ball home. The Governor realized that he couldn’t win and decided to not play. Then, if that wasn’t enough, turn around and blame it on this “federalization” of education.

Truth be told, if someone had told me what state, if only one, would opt out of RTTT, I would have guessed Virginia. The new governor is following stereotypical Virginia Republican political lines, so there is no surprise. It’s too bad, though, because this is bad politics and hurts students from the Commonwealth of Virginia. Let’s leave politics out of this as much as possible so that we can improve education, and standards, for all children.

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