RTT And Common Core: Coercion Or Catalyst?

An ongoing debate in the education world right now is whether the Obama Administration coerced states to adopt Common Core.  There are strong feelings on all sides, particularly among those who see Common Core as national overreach. But the stridency masks some nuance in how states are approaching Common Core and why behind the scenes there is bipartisan hope that the standards can weather the current storm (and also why despite the noise states are not jumping).

Maybe to understand what’s going on it’s one where you have you keep two things in mind at once. In September 2010 we asked the Whiteboard Education Insiders survey two questions about this very issue. First we asked, would the number of states adopting Common Core be as high absent Race to the Top? Seventy-six percent of Insiders said it would not have been. But we then asked if the Common Core adoption would be sustained after federal dollars linked to it stopped flowing? Seventy-nine percent said it would.

So perhaps both sides are right to some extent, but it was more of a jump start than outright coercion.

4 Replies to “RTT And Common Core: Coercion Or Catalyst?”

  1. The thing missing entirely from the debate is the distinction between incentives and coercion. The federal government incentivizes college attendance with federal financial aid. Does this mean that all citizens have been coerced into going to college? Ludicrous. The only way both sides can be right here is if we conflate incentives and coercion.

    The question “Would the number of states adopting Common Core be as high absent Race to the Top?” only gets at the question of whether RTT was a federal incentive, not whether it was coercive. It clearly was and was an incentive and was intended as such. Certainly the number of students attending college would not be as high without federal financial aid. That’s because it is an (effective) incentive, not because it is coercive.

    Let’s also be clear that some things which masquerade as incentives are actually coercion. For example when the federal government threatened to deny federal highway funds to Louisiana unless it raised the drinking age to 21, that was coercive. One could make the claim that it just provided an incentive to all the other states, but that’s sophistry. States and their citizens depend on federal highways and the money to maintain them, and so refusing is not a feasible option (as evidenced by Louisiana’s eventual capitulation). To deny someone something they have been provided over time, and on which they depend vitally is not a “differential incentive”, it’s a form of blackmail, and is meaningfully coercive. NCLB for example was meaningfully coercive because states have received Title I fund for a long time and depend vitally on them.

    There is no one who could argue with a shred of evidence that Race to the Top followed this pattern. It was new money, it was NOT given to everyone except those states that refused CC, and it was limited in scope over time i.e. not dependency forming. If we start calling time-limited competitive grants coercive, we have blurred the lines between incentives and coercion to the point of conceptual confusion. I suspect that the anti-federalists on the right are eager to create exactly this confusion, to support their belief that the federal government has no right do anything in education. Distinguishing these two concepts fundamentally undermines their position.

    For anyone thoughtful enough to distinguish between incentives and coercion, the important questions are 1) What is and should the federal role in providing incentives for education reform? and 2) Is the Common Core something that the federal government should incentivize?

    Those questions are worthy of discussion. Whether RTT was coercive is not. That’s just a right-wing talking point dependent on blurring categories.

  2. You wrote: To deny someone something they have been provided over time, and on which they depend vitally is not a “differential incentive”, it’s a form of blackmail, and is meaningfully coercive.

    To restate what I think you are saying: if we previously enjoyed a vital benefit and later some condition is attached to that benefit, then that is coercive. Would you say that it would be coercive if the feds refused all education funding to states that did not adopt the common core?

    To me, it seems more like a continuum… if the tax rate is 30% and public education is free, then am I being coerced into sending my children to state-provided public education rather than private school? Sort of. If the tax rate is 80% and public education is free, then I doubt many families will be able to afford private school. Regardless of whether the tax rate was lower in the past, a society where the taxes are so high and the incentives are so large seems effectively the same as a society which simply decrees, “you must attend this type of school rather than that type of school.”

  3. I wouldn’t say that federal education funding is on a continuum. Often, it is tied to certain subjects such as special education, technology, or anti-poverty efforts. I’d say it comes in boxes.

    The Race to the Top grants were new funds to do new things. If a state didn’t want to do those things, it had no incentive to take the grant money. (In fact, the federal grant money probably wouldn’t cover the full costs of doing what the grant required. So a state really had to want to do what the grant required if it applied for a grant.)

    No regular federal funds were tied to Common Core. If a state wanted to continue with its old standards and assessments, whatever their quality, it could do so with no loss of funds.

    Even if a state wanted an NCLB waiver, it didn’t have to adopt CC (though it did have to show it had rigorous standards, meaning nothing more than that its HS grads wouldn’t need to take HS English and math in college).

  4. Oddly missing from these accounts is the fact that the states were in the deep financial crisis of the Great Recession when Race to the Top was launched, a crisis they didn’t cause (but one in which Washington, D.C. played a fundamental role) but one which led to the destruction of thousands of jobs in education (including mine) even with the new RTTT money flowing. Tell a hungry man you’ll give him some food if he’ll do what you want: is that coercive? At least sort of. If that hungry man is used to being independent and regularly gives money to someone else (like a bank, or the federal government) in exchange for regularly delivered services, the conditions for which change just when he needs those services most, don’t you think a predictable consequence is lasting bitterness towards the fickle provider of those services?

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