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Senator Chuck Grassley: Q&A on Education

Q:    Why is it important that education decisions be made at the state level?
A:    When the U.S. Constitution was drafted, there was considerable popular debate about whether it was possible to have a republican form of government over a large and diverse country.  The solution, advocated principally by James Madison, was federalism.  This principle is reinforced by the 10th amendment to the Constitution, which says, “The powers not delegated to the United States by this constitution, nor prohibited by it to the states, are reserved to the states, respectively, or to the people.”  The Founders left education out of the Constitution and, so, left it to the states.  In fact, you could think of it this way.  Has your family ever tried to vote on what to have for a meal?  It’s hard to get everyone to agree on the same thing, so oftentimes parents make the final call, and someone ends up eating something they didn’t want or choose.  Now imagine if your whole neighborhood had to decide on the same thing for dinner.  Or, the whole town.  A lot of people would end up not happy with the decision.  That’s why it’s important that decisions be made as close as possible to the people affected.  Leaving what should be taught, or not taught, in schools to parents and local communities gives parents a direct line of accountability to those making decisions about education curriculum.  State legislatures and local school boards are the appropriate places for those decisions to be made.  In addition, the states are laboratories of democracy, and they foster innovation and solutions to policy challenges.  State-level control promotes dynamic and adaptable reform efforts that are best suited to the states and communities they affect.   As a result, current federal law makes clear that the U.S. Department of Education may not be involved in setting specific content standards or determining the content of state assessments.

Q:    What is controversial with the Common Core program?
A:    In 2009, the Common Core State Standards Initiative was supposed to be a voluntary effort among states to establish common standards determining what should be taught in each grade in Mathematics and English Language Arts.  Then the U.S. Department of Education got involved by tying federal funds to the adoption of these standards.  For example, the federal Race to the Top program offered significant federal stimulus funding to states that agreed to adopt a set of policies, including committing to a “common set of K-12 standards” matching the description of Common Core standards.  The U.S. Department of Education also made adoption of “college- and career-ready standards,” also matching the description of Common Core standards, a condition to receive a state waiver of requirements in the No Child Left Behind Act.  Race to the Top funds also were used for two consortiums to develop assessments aligned to Common Core standards, and the U.S. Department of Education is in the process of evaluating the assessments.  I’ve responded to the way federal education programs have tied eligibility to Common Core standards by organizing a group of nine senators to formally request that Senate appropriations legislation that will fund the U.S. Department of Education for the next fiscal year be written to restore state-level decision making about academic content in public schools.  Clear restrictions should be set to prevent the federal agency from setting academic content standards either directly or indirectly.  The federal government should not be allowed to coerce state-level education decisions.

Q:    What’s the goal of the A-PLUS Act?
A:    A-PLUS stands for the Academic Partnerships Lead Us to Success.  This legislative reform initiative would give state and local leaders greater control than they have today over use of federal education funds.  The idea is for states to address the needs of local students and target scarce resources to the areas of highest need.  A-PLUS would require public transparency about the use of federal education dollars and student academic achievement and also require states to abide by federal civil rights laws in advancing educational opportunities for all students.  Senator John Cornyn of Texas introduced the A-PLUS Act, and I’m an original co-sponsor.  The legislation recognizes that dozens of federal education programs haven’t delivered on their promises to improve education in America.  Instead, the federal programs have fostered bureaucracy and a compliance mentality.  A-PLUS reform would shift control of resources to the states if states opt to take it.

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