Published September 7, 2012
Editor’s note: this piece is adapted from Spreading the Wealth: How Obama is Robbing the Suburbs to Pay for the Cities (Sentinel HC August 2012).
What if President Obama’s most ambitious attempt to transform American society was also his quietest plan? You wouldn’t vote against the president on account of a program you’d never heard about, of course. That, I’d wager, is why President Obama has told the American public next-to-nothing about his plans to undercut the political and financial independence of America’s suburban school districts.
Obama is quietly busy making an end-run around our constitutional system, which forbids federal control of what your children learn in school. Step one, already well under way, is a dumbed-down national curriculum designed to artificially suppress achievement gaps between urban and suburban students. The right way to help poorly performing students is not to gut standards but to raise achievement, yet Obama is committed to defining performance down. That’s why the president’s ultimate goal is to erase the differences between local school districts with a massive redistribution of suburban education spending to the cities.
The 2008 controversy over Obama’s years of education work with that famously unrepentant Weather Underground terrorist Bill Ayers has faded from view. For a moment, it seemed as though Ayers’ radical education legacy would carry forward into Obama’s presidency. That’s because Linda Darling-Hammond, Ayers’ favorite education expert and head of Obama’s education transition team, was on a fast track to appointment as secretary of education until her leftism alienated even many Democrats.
When Arne Duncan, who ostensibly backs demanding standards and tests, became education secretary instead, it looked as though Obama had tacked center. He hadn’t, and appearances to the contrary, neither had Darling-Hammond left the scene.
The core of the hard-left’s education agenda—a program shared by Obama, Ayers, and Darling-Hammond alike—has three parts: 1) a politicized curriculum that promotes leftist notions of “social justice,” 2) reducing “disparate outcomes” between students in different districts by undercutting standards, and 3) a redistribution of suburban education funding to less-well-off urban schools. Achieving these goals on a broad scale requires the federal government to usurp local control of K-12 schooling.
Obama is half-way there.
How did he do it? Instead of submitting his controversial education proposals to Congress and kicking off a vigorous national debate, Obama quietly marked $4.35 billion of federal stimulus spending for his Race to the Top education initiative. Since the stimulus bill was rushed through Congress with barely any debate on economic policy, much less education, Obama never had to go public with his plans.
By coordinating with outside groups not accountable to the voters, like the deep-pocketed Gates Foundation, the White House then orchestrated the creation of a national Common Core of education standards, with an accompanying curriculum and tests.
Supposedly, these standards have been voluntarily adopted by more than 40 states. In fact, by effectively conditioning eligibility for Race to the Top grants on participation in the Common Core, the Obama administration has forced economically pinched states to surrender control of their school curricula to the federal government. Cleverly, states have been pressed to sign on to the Common Core before the actual standards, curricula, and tests are revealed in a second Obama term. The entire scheme is arguably both illegal and unconstitutional. Yet it is moving forward, and the public knows virtually nothing about it.
A few conservatives have been fooled by the seemingly traditionalist call for national “standards.” Yet most conservative education experts understand that the new national standards will be low, not high. With so many pressing economic issues on the table, however, nobody’s listening. Too bad, because the ultimate outcome of Obama’s education scheme will actually be economic: a sweeping redistribution of suburban education funding to the cities.
Far from having departing the scene, Obama’s former adviser, Linda Darling-Hammond, is at the center of this plan. She works with the Smarter-Balanced Assessment Consortium, selected by the administration to create the testing system for the new Common Core. Darling-Hammond has gone out of her way to downplay her role with the Smarter-Balanced Consortium, but the group’s own publications make it clear that she is effectively running the show. So, although Darling-Hammond is the top national opponent of standardized tests, she is now effectively in charge of designing a new K-12 testing system for much of the nation. The result will be politically correct questions, and standards that aren’t really standards at all.
That’s only part one of the plan. President Obama’s Department of Education has established an Equity and Excellence Commission, charged with finding “ways to restructure school finance systems to achieve equity in the distribution of educational resources and further student achievement and attainment.” Conveniently, the commission’s recommendations will emerge only during a possible second Obama term. Darling-Hammond is a member of that commission, and if past experience is a guide will have outsize influence on its recommendations.
Darling-Hammond has already made her intentions clear. She is pushing a plan to add common “resource standards” to the new Common Core’s curricular standards. That is, Darling-Hammond hopes to condition federal education aid on the equalization of school funding across municipal lines. She has also proposed allowing students to transfer across school district lines, with transportation provided at government expense.
The target here is the suburbs. Obama and Darling-Hammond are both longtime supporters of the little-known “regional equity” movement, which aims to undercut the political independence of America’s suburbs so as to redistribute suburban wealth to the cities. Obama is too sharp politically to advertise this part of his program, yet he is aggressively pressing it forward.
The right to educate your children as you see fit has traditionally stood at the very center of the American vision of self-government and personal liberty. When young couples work and save so that they can move to a home in the suburbs with just the sort of schools they want, we say that they are pursuing the American dream. Shut off that dream with a misguided effort to equalize the funding of every American school district, and you destroy the engine that drives our prosperity, removing a core motive to work.
Agree or disagree, shouldn’t President Obama clearly explain his ambitious redistributive plans for K-12 education—and America’s suburbs—so that they can be discussed and debated during this epochal national election?
Stanley Kurtz is a senior fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center and author of the new book, Spreading the Wealth: How Obama Is Robbing the Suburbs to Pay for the Cities.