The imperfect "ObamaCore" analogy

The COMMENTARY blog is my absolute favorite, so I was more than a little crestfallen when I read Seth Mandel’s recent entry. “Wherever you stand on the Common Core,” he declared, “it can’t be good news for the program that it has begun to so resemble the disastrous process and rollout of this administration’s last federal reform, ObamaCare. Yet the opposition to the Common Core has followed a familiar pattern.”

Mandel is right that the debates have unmistakable parallels. But, as he acknowledges, “none of this is to suggest that the Common Core is nearly the disaster–or constitutionally suspect power grab–that ObamaCare is.”

Lest that point get lost, let me reiterate the vast differences between ObamaCare and the Common Core when it comes to federal involvement.

ObamaCare is a federal program through and through. Created by an act of Congress, it puts federal bureaucrats in charge of one-sixth of the economy, overrules state regulatory bodies (regarding insurance and much else), involves a massive redistribution of public and private dollars, and excludes any sort of “opt out” provision for states. (Thanks to the Supreme Court, states can refuse the Medicaid expansion, but they are stuck with everything else.)

The contrast with the Common Core could not be starker. This was an initiative launched by the governors and state school leaders well before Barack Obama was even a serious contender for the presidency, much less seated in the White House. It had momentum prior to the 2008 election as state policymakers came to understand that their own academic standards for public schooling were far too low—and sadly uneven—and that a joint effort to create common standards might provide the political cover to aim higher. Smartly, the federal government was kept out of the standards-drafting process, which was funded by the states and by private entities like the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.

But then, yes, the Obama administration fatefully decided to award extra points to states adopting the Common Core when deciding which would get big grants under its stimulus-funded Race to the Top program. So forty-five states plus D.C. quickly did so—surely more than otherwise would. And Arne Duncan put $300 million into the development of common assessments to go along with the standards.

But that’s it. That’s the extent of federal involvement. I understand that, for many conservatives, these incentives and investments tainted the entire Common Core project. But they don’t come close to turning Common Core into “Fed Ed,” as pundits like Michelle Malkin like to say.

Let me be clear: I do not defend the administration’s actions on Common Core, the rest of its education agenda, or anything else. The charge of Obama’s being an “imperial presidency” has legs, in my view. Arne Duncan’s aggressive use of “conditional waivers” from the NCLB mandates is both unconstitutional and unwise, and his ham-handed push for test-based teacher evaluations and school-discipline quotas is apt to cause serious harm to America’s schools. (That the Tea Party isn’t up in arms about the latter is completely baffling to me.)

But get beyond the surface debates and any fair-minded observer can plainly see that the Common Core doesn’t fit into this narrative. It started in the states. Many Republican governors still support it. Many prominent conservatives do, too. The federal government played a role, but a limited one.

My own theory is that many conservatives, including those at the state level, are rightly frustrated at ObamaCare, and doubly frustrated that they can’t pull their states out of it. But they can pull out of Common Core—precisely because it’s not a federal mandate!—and might do so to blow off some steam at the president.

But if you believe that these rigorous new academic standards for English and math are importantly stronger than what states had before, and are likely to improve teaching and learning in U.S. schools, then pulling out of the Common Core to spite the president starts to look like a pretty silly idea. It’s certainly not a conservative idea—and it’s definitely not good for kids. Conservatives should find another target.

A slightly different version of this op-ed originally appeared in Commentary Magazine.

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