In late August, as students across Louisiana bought their school supplies, packed their backpacks, and enjoyed the last days of summer, Louisiana Governor Bobby Jindal was preparing a slightly different plan to kick off the new school year. With all the fanfare of an ambitious young politician, Jindal, a likely 2016 Republican contender, announced a lawsuit against the Obama administration to block the Common Core State Standards, which were scheduled to go into effect during the 2014-2015 school year.
Those who have been following the rollout of Common Core will appreciate the irony in Jindal’s suit. Just two years ago, after volunteering his state to adopt the standards, he claimed that they would “raise expectations for every child.” Now Jindal has reversed his position, indicating the extent to which the politicization of the Common Core State Standards has turned education reform into an ideological battlefield.
By all looks and appearances, Common Core is a palatable solution. It aims to combat the meager race-to-the-bottom standards states adopted in the No Child Left Behind era. It is a bipartisan initiative with widespread support from both sides of the political aisle. Better yet, it is a truly state-led program, spearheaded by the National Governor’s Association and other sub-national leaders.
Despite these accolades, the Common Core standards are getting a bad rap. According to a recent Education Next poll, 53% of the public supports the standards — still a majority, but significantly less than the 65% favorable rating the standards got last year. The split is also divided on party lines. In 2013, support for the standards was about equal: 57% of Republicans and 64% of Democrats favored the standards. Since then, Republican support has dropped to 43% while Democratic favorability has remained about the same.
The standards’ unpopularity is largely due to the perception that the Obama administration has forced States to accept Common Core through backdoor deals and manipulations without public consultation. So could Bobby Jindal’s lawsuit be the federal education showdown we’ve all been waiting for?
Short answer: no. Jindal’s suit is merely a political stunt, designed to win him the Common Core Crusader reputation he so covets, but his case is built on tenuous grounds at best. Jindal claims that the U.S. Department of Education coerced states to adopt the standards. While this isn’t exactly untrue — the Obama administration requires states to adopt “college and career-ready standards” to receive Race to the Top funds – this kind of policy coercion has a strong historical precedent.
Education has historically been an issue under the purview of state and local governments. It is one of the nebulous public services protected under the tenth amendment to the U.S. Constitution, but that doesn’t mean the national government will keep its fingers out of the soup.
Ever since FDR’s New Deal era, the national government has shifted its weight around in an attempt to influence local policy. This isn’t a bad thing. Just look at the interstate highway system. Prior to 1956, individual states were largely responsible for creating their own system of interconnected highways, which predictably resulted in a disorganized tangle of roads — each with its own signs, laws, quality, and maintenance. By the mid-1950s, there was a need for a more unified highway system, not only to facilitate interstate commerce but also to ensure efficient mobilization of troops in the event of an invasion.
The Constitution reserves to the states the right to create transportation and highway policy, but Congress needed a plan that would wrest this power away from state governments and enforce a national standard. Rather than passing regulations, which would require a Constitutional amendment, Congress authorized a grant program through the National Interstate and Defense Highways Act that would cover 90% of the construction of an interstate highway system. The grant program was irresistible to states: it significantly decreased the cost of construction, requiring States to pay only ten cents to the dollar. As expected, these grants came with strings attached.
All states that accepted the Interstate Highways money would be required to adhere to specific regulations, allowing the national government to elbow its way into state policy. Congress later used highway money to push the states to unanimously increase the legal drinking age from 18 to 21, a move upheld by the Supreme Court.
All this is to say that federal coercion in state policymaking is not new. President Eisenhower leveraged federal funds in the 1950s with the Interstate Highway System. President Johnson did the same in 1965 when he passed an amendment to the Social Security Act to create Medicaid. The Bush-era No Child Left Behind act also relied on federal pressure. Transportation, healthcare, and education are all services left to the states, but the national government has a knack for pulling strings to get what it wants.
So will Bobby Jindal’s lawsuit succeed? No. At least, it’s very unlikely. Back in 2005, a coalition of school districts from three states – Michigan, Texas, and Vermont – along with the National Education Association (NEA) and several NEA affiliates, tried unsuccessfully to challenge No Child Left Behind. The plaintiffs argued that the law failed to sufficiently cover the costs of implementation and was, thus, an unfunded mandate. Long story short, the suit failed. The Court argued that the statutes did not prohibit Congress from “offering federal funds on the condition that States and school districts comply with the many statutory requirements, such as devising and administering tests, improving test scores, and training teachers.” Basically: if you take our money, we get to call the shots.
Louisiana is one of 19 states that have received money through the Race to the Top grant program. If Bobby Jindal is going to accept federal funds for education in Louisiana, then he will have to stomach the fact that they come with strings attached.
Jindal’s lawsuit will fail—but that’s not what he wants anyway. Jindal is betting that the 2016 Republican primary electorate will lean far to the right and reward his hard stance against perceived federal overreach. By then, Louisiana Common Core will be in its second year – for better or for worse.