They Fought the Feds, and the Feds Lost!
Pop quiz time: Who said the following in response to the Obama Administration’s 2009 Race to the Top Program?
“The basic assumption of your draft regulations appears to be that top down, Washington driven standardization is best…. You are funding teaching interventions or changes to the learning environment that promise to make public education better, i.e. greater mastery of what it takes to become an effective citizen and a productive member of society. In the draft you have circulated, I sense a pervasive technocratic bias and an uncritical faith in the power of social science.”
(A) Then Kansas Senator (now Governor) Sam Brownback
(B) Then Texas Governor Rick Perry
(C) Then California Attorney General (now Governor ) Jerry Brown
(D) Missouri Governor Jay Nixon
If you guessed Sam Brownback, you would be wrong. It was actually Democrat Jerry Brown. Yes, that Jerry Brown.
This quote resurfaced in an interesting piece by Matt Barnum of education website The 74 about California’s long-running opposition to federal education policy. Brown’s riposte was a harbinger of the showdown that California ultimately had with the Department of Education in 2013, when California suspended its standardized testing and school rating system. The feds said they couldn’t do it and threatened to withhold funding. Brown responded more like a Texan than a Californian and dared them to come and take it. The feds backed down.
I think there are two interesting lessons to take away from this story (which is worth reading in full).
First, states can stand up to the federal government. It obviously helped California that it is the most populous state in the union and is one that will reliably deliver Democratic votes, but even with that said, it is clear that the federal government is loathe to pull funding that overwhelmingly benefits poor students and students with special needs. That is not to say that they wouldn’t, but states are probably in a stronger bargaining position than they realize.
Second, the issue itself matters. California picked a smart issue on which to go toe to toe with the Department of Education. Had the feds been opposing standardized tests and the states supporting them, the calculus would probably be much different. A hardline stance might not work with an issue with more divided opinion or one where the federal government has the majority opinion on its side.
I don’t know if what California is doing is right or wrong. I’m by no means a technocrat, but I think they probably swung too far in the opposite direction on testing and school accountability. That said, part of respecting local control of education is realizing that not everyone is going to make the decisions that you would have made had you been part of the process. Agree or not, we can learn from California about what states can do when they feel they have been pushed too far, and we can recognize the need for states to have a game plan in place in case they are asked (or ordered) to do things expressly against the will of their citizens.