The federal government’s most extensive foray into control of education, No Child Left Behind, is a failure. Not only has it had little effect on educational outcomes, but it is widely despised by administrators, teachers, parents, and students. This general disgust with the status quo has created an opportunity for President Obama and Secretary of Education Arne Duncan to push a “reform” agenda that pays lip service to the concept of local and parental control but that actually promotes classic “progressive” policies. To protect our constitutional values and the rights of parents to exercise final authority over their children’s education, this progressive agenda must be stopped.

The Tenth Amendment to the Constitution reserves to the states all powers not delegated to the federal government. For most of our nation’s history, education was considered preeminent among those reserved powers, and for good reason. Teaching and learning are quintessentially local activities—the thought never would have occurred to our founders that a bureaucrat in Washington is more capable than parents or teachers of creating an educational plan appropriate for an individual child.

But President Obama seems to reject America’s founding principles and embraces instead the belief that people must be managed, for the good of the country, by elites in government and other institutions. This was the philosophy of the early-20th-century progressives, and it is pervasive in the Obama administration. A prime example is the complete transformation of the American health-care system in a manner that has proven to be ill-founded everywhere it has been tried.

The progressive view of health care—that the system should be managed by “experts” for the good of the economy and society in general—is identical to the progressive view of education: the education of children is simply too important to be left, as the Founders intended, to parents, localities, and the states. This view is far more entrenched than most people realize. The progressive agenda threatens our constitutional system and parents’ right to transmit their values to their children through education. It is an ongoing effort that predates the Obama administration and has been infiltrating American culture for decades. With a renewed effort in the current administration, it is no exaggeration to say that we are now at a critical point in the battle for the soul of America.

Start your day with Public Discourse

Sign up and get our daily essays sent straight to your inbox.

Progressive educators have long advocated sweeping national control of education. One prominent progressive reformist, Marc Tucker of the National Center on Education and the Economy (NCEE), fleshed out this view in a now-famous letter he wrote to Hillary Clinton (then a member of NCEE’s Board of Trustees) shortly after the 1992 election. Tucker laid out his vision, which, to conservatives, describes a dystopia of authoritarian control: “remold the entire American system for human resources development . . .  [a] seamless system of unending skill development that begins in the home with the very young and continues through school, postsecondary education and the workplace.” Beginning with the creation of national standards of curricula and assessment, and then solidifying control of education from preschool through the workforce, this vision is being implemented by the Obama Department of Education (DOE).

The first step in this process is the imposition on the states of common educational content standards, so that every child in every locality will be taught content decided upon by “experts” affiliated with the federal government and special interests. Presidential efforts to develop such “voluntary” national standards in the 1990s collapsed under scrutiny, so this time around, the “common standards” advocates have realized the political necessity of presenting standards as generated by the states, not the federal government.

The result is the Common Core Standards (CCS), created and propagated under the auspices of the National Governors Association, with tens of millions of dollars in funding from the Gates Foundation and other corporate interests. The Obama DOE is determined to force these standards on all the states—not by direct diktat, which is forbidden by federal statute, but by showering federal funds on states that adopt the standards and withholding, and threatening to withhold, funds from those that balk. Not surprisingly, most states have fallen in line. And because the deadline for deciding on the CCS was carefully timed by DOE to fall when most state legislatures were not in session, the decision had to be made, in most cases, by state education officials without input from the people’s representatives in the legislature. So much for parental control, or even parental notification.

CCS currently encompasses only English language arts and mathematics but in time will include science, history, and other subjects. But even these current standards have been criticized as deeply flawed: the math standards would put U.S. students two years behind students in other high-performing countries, and the language-arts curriculum radically departs from traditional literature, steeped in the classics, that equips young minds to appreciate and follow in the footsteps of the citizen-leaders who founded our country.

The DOE is also pumping money into developing assessments that will track the CCS. By the time these tests are finalized, probably in 2014, and the additional standards are imposed, states will find themselves locked into a rigid educational scheme that most legislatures never approved. Additionally, given the makeup and philosophy of the federal bureaucrats who will oversee the system, and their alliances with interest groups pushing radical agendas such as (to cite only one example) complete normalization of LGBT activity, the danger is very real that parents will see their children taught principles in conflict with their own. This is what inevitably happens when local control, as envisioned by the Founders, gives way to national control influenced by special interests.

Curriculum standards are only one aspect of the progressive effort to control education for the good of a managed national economy. Other activity by DOE reveals an intent to expand the concept of “education” to permit government oversight and tracking of a multitude of human endeavors, from cradle to grave, that might affect the national economy.

This intent is reflected in DOE’s recently proposed amendments to the Family and Educational Rights and Privacy Act of 1974 (FERPA), a statute that strictly limits the dissemination of a student’s Personally Identifiable Information (PII). For example, the amendments would redefine “education program” under FERPA to include any program that could marginally be considered “educational,” even if not conducted by an educational authority such as a public school or college. This radical change would allow nonconsensual access to PII compiled as part of practically any program, whether truly educational or otherwise.

It gets worse. DOE proposes to allow transmission of students’ PII—without parental consent—to any governmental or private entity designated by DOE and others as an “authorized representative.” If this amendment takes effect, DOE could share a student’s PII with, for example, the Departments of Health and Human Services (HHS) and Labor (DOL). The student’s parents would have no right to object; indeed, they would probably never know that such disclosure had occurred. HHS and DOL then would have access to all manner of personal data that would be invaluable in managing a planned economy.

What kinds of personal data might be included? According to the National Data Education Model, a myriad of information such as blood type, health-care history, birthmarks, family income range, and family voting status would be available. And DOE is encouraging and lavishly funding the development of statewide longitudinal data systems intended “to capture, analyze, and use student data from preschool to high school, college, and the workforce.” Imagine how a progressive statist, armed with such technology and information, could manage a society for the good of its grateful citizenry.

In its proposed rulemaking, DOE asserts that “there is no reason why a State health and human services or labor department . . . should be precluded from . . . receiving non-consensual disclosures of [PII] to link education, workforce, health, family services, and other data” for the purpose of auditing or evaluating education programs. But there is reason, not least that it runs counter to our founding principles that aimed to protect privacy, limit government intrusion, and allow for local autonomy. The American Association of Collegiate Registrars and Admissions Officers, which is expert on FERPA compliance, describes this proposal as “a very radical policy shift” that overturns decades of settled interpretation.

The DOE rejects even the basic requirement that it demonstrate legal authority for its data disclosure. The proposed changes would expand the government’s right to disclose personal data for purposes of research studies, audits, or evaluations, without having to identify express legal authority for that action.

What to do? The obvious answer is to abolish the Department of Education. This is a worthy goal; there is no constitutional, and little practical, justification for DOE’s existence. But given the deeply entrenched interests of the education bureaucracy, and the power of the special interests that created and continue to benefit from it, DOE may be impregnable for now. Even President Reagan, who campaigned on the issue, was unable to abolish it. Moreover, as illustrated by the willingness of leftist politicians and bureaucrats to evade the legislative process by stealth (see the attempted rewriting of FERPA by regulation), the objectionable functions of DOE might simply be transferred to a different department, where they can be exercised with even less transparency. (The discredited Head Start program, for example, is administered by HHS rather than DOE.)

Rather than stake everything on an immediate battle to abolish DOE, a more achievable and effective course would be to enervate the agency so that it can no longer impose its will on the states. The most pressing concern at this time is to roll back DOE’s attempts to mandate acceptance of the Common Core Standards. The following steps could be taken to achieve this goal and prevent future mischief by DOE:

1)      Pass federal legislation releasing states from their commitment to adopt the Common Core Standards. In keeping with the Constitution and federal law, states should be free to devise and implement standards that satisfy the parents of the children they educate.

2)      Pass federal legislation prohibiting DOE from conditioning the grant of federal funds on a state’s commitment to certain actions. Instead, to the extent that federal funds are spent on education, they should be awarded in block grants on an equitable basis. This reform would end the sly tyranny of DOE, which uses its considerable power of the purse to evade the current federal prohibition on directing curriculum.

3)      Withdraw the proposed amendments to FERPA, so that the statute will continue to protect students’ Personally Identifiable Information from nonconsensual disclosure.

4)      Reauthorize the provision of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act that prohibits the creation of a national database of student information.

5)      End all federal funding of development of curricula and assessments. Allow states to choose the curricula and assessment schemes that are best for them and acceptable to parents.

These proposals are designed to restore the vision of the Founders: that in all matters not properly delegated to the federal government, including education, the states should be free to craft and implement their own policies. Freedom works, in education as in most things. Allowed to choose what is best for their children, parents will gravitate to good public schools or private schools or charter schools or homeschooling: to whatever produces the best outcomes for their children. Competition among the states to maximize educational freedom—unencumbered by the federal government—will yield results far superior to those from top-down mandates imposed by “experts” in Washington. The best thing the federal government can do to facilitate this process is to get out of the way.

This essay is part of the 2012 Election Symposium. Read all of the entries here: