In 2009, the National Governors Association and the Council of Chief State School Officers coordinated the Common Core State Standards Initiative among the states. They were assisted by Achieve, Inc., a nonprofit entity created by governors and business leaders in 1996. The governor and chief state school officer of every state except Alaska and Texas signed a memorandum agreeing to participate in this historic effort to establish rigorous, common academic standards across the states. Common Core proponents emphasized stagnant, lagging education indicators in the United States and links between education and global economic competition. They aimed to replace uneven academic standards with clear, consistent, internationally-benchmarked learning goals.
Published in 2010, the Common Core consists of learning standards in English language arts and literacy (ELA) and mathematics for grades K-12. The standards are intended to improve college- and career-readiness among high school graduates. The standards establish expectations rather than specific curricula. States and localities determine how to implement the standards. By 2010, 43 states and Washington, D.C. had adopted the Common Core; three additional states followed in 2011.
Education has often been treated as a “reserved power” of the states under the Tenth Amendment of the United States Constitution. However, the Constitution also grants Congress power to tax and spend to provide for the “general welfare” and to adopt laws “necessary and proper” in order to do so. Federal activism in education has sometimes provoked opposition from states seeking to safeguard their interests. There is ongoing political controversy over federal and state roles in education. Major federal education laws such as the No Child Left Behind Act of 2001 and the Every Student Succeeds Act of 2015 specify limits on federal power, including prohibitions on federally-mandated curricula. Despite these limits, the federal government has used its power of the purse and waivers of federal policies to encourage specific state actions.
The Common Core in its pure form is a national policy adopted by the states rather than federal policy imposed by the federal government. The federal government was not directly involved in Common Core development. However, the federal government provided two controversial inducements for states to adopt the Common Core and also funded development of Common Core assessments.
First, in 2010, the Obama Administration administered the $4.35 billion Race to the Top program, the largest competitive education grant program in United States history. The program was initially authorized by the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009. The program was intended to encourage and reward states that had demonstrated success in raising student achievement and had ambitious education reform plans. During two competition phases in 2010, 11 states and the District of Columbia won Race to the Top awards. States were eligible for $20 million to $700 million. In 2011, Congress provided an additional $700 million for Race to the Top grants, including $500 million focused on early learning.
Federal officials used the incentive of Race to the Top funding during a severe economic recession to direct states toward four paths aligned with the Obama Administration’s vision for education reform, including state adoption of the Common Core. States pledging to adopt the Common Core (or equivalent) could earn up to 70 points out of 500 possible points on the 2010 Race to the Top grant application. Race to the Top critics characterized it as a prescriptive, top-down approach. While there were internal political conflicts over Race to the Top requirements in some states, most rushed to adopt policy changes in order to qualify for the federal funds.
Second, the states created two interstate consortia for the purpose of developing and implementing Common Core student assessments. The federal government granted a total of $362 million in Race to the Top and supplemental federal funds to the two consortia. In 2010, most states participated in at least one of the consortia; by 2016, many states had left the consortia.
Third, beginning in 2011, the U.S. Department of Education offered state waivers from the No Child Left Behind Act (NCLB). Signed into law in 2002, NCLB was due for reauthorization in 2007 yet Congress failed to act until 2015. States had long wanted relief from several NCLB provisions. Most notably, NCLB required states to ensure that all students were proficient in English Language Arts and mathematics by 2014, an ambitious goal that proved unattainable. In the absence of congressional action, the Obama Administration used waivers to advance its education policy goals and provide NCLB relief to the states. State applicants for NCLB waivers had to demonstrate that they had adopted “college- and career-ready standards” (e.g., Common Core) in at least ELA and mathematics.
Major business interest groups including the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, Business Roundtable, state chambers of commerce, and other state business groups actively supported the Common Core. Federal government support for Common Core fueled opposition from states’ rights advocates. Opponents levied arguments pertaining to federal overreach and local control of education. Additional opposition arose among some teachers, standardized testing opponents, and critics of Common Core content.
The politics of federalism pertaining to Common Core is evident in the 2015 Every Student Succeeds Act, the law that replaced NCLB. The law specifies that states have a right to withdraw from Common Core or otherwise revise their standards, that the federal government cannot make state participation in Common Core a condition of receiving federal funds or waivers, and that the federal government cannot endorse or sanction Common Core-aligned curricula.
Many states later repealed or revised the Common Core as it became immersed in the politics of federalism. Governors and other state policymakers aimed to show constituents that they were safeguarding state autonomy to determine their own, respective academic standards. The substance of Common Core repeals and revisions typically differed from the rhetoric. By 2017, analysts had identified few major departures from the Common Core in state revisions of the standards.
Frederick M. Hess and Michael Q. McShane, eds., Common Core Meets Education Reform: What it All Means for Politics, Policy, and the Future of Schooling (New York, NY: Teachers College Press, 2014); Jonathan A. Supovitz and James P. Spillane, eds., Challenging Standards: Navigating Conflict and Building Capacity in the Era of the Common Core (Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield, 2015).