Common Core and the Constitution

Rob Schwarzwalder is Senior Vice President at Family Research Council. This article appeared on, October 7, 2014.

The Common Core State Standards (CCSS) for public education are often in the news, and Family Research Council has taken a strong stand against them (see, for example,

Critics of the CCSS raise a number of key concerns, ranging from the content of the standards to the manner of their implementation. However, there is one primary issue that must not be lost in the discussion: The federal government's role in education.

Simply put, according to the Constitution, the federal government really has no enumerated role in education. That's why we have states, political entities through which parents and responsible adults can develop curricula for their children's education at a much more local level than one dictated by a federal bureaucracy.

Are federal bureaucrats ill-motivated? Do supporters of the federal Department of Education wish to undermine the republic? Are business leaders worried about the decline of what the late management theorist Peter Drucker called "knowledge workers" - employees who have the high-tech training necessary to keep our country competitive in the increasingly integrated global economy - animated only greed?

My own answer to these questions is no. Motivations tend to be complex and often rationalized. More than this, many advocates of the CCSS believe that without them, our economic future will be more bleak than otherwise and that young people will graduate from high school ill-prepared for the professional challenges of the 21st century.

That said, there are myriad problems with Common Core, as FRC's Senior Fellow Sarah Perry has documented. But let's say that the substance of the standards was hailed universally as outstanding and that nothing else about their content or marketing or effectiveness was in question. One issue would remain: The fact that the Constitution of the United States provides no basis for federal intervention in education.

There is a very practical problem with federal direction of public education: The likelihood that Uncle Sam will become the "senior partner" in any venture with local or state authorities concerning the education of children. Dwight Eisenhower, for example, was highly dubious of federal educational intervention. As recounted by his grandson David, Dwight Eisenhower "was skeptical of the clamor for federal aid to education. When the federal government begins to fund education, he argued, educational institutions will find they cannot live without the assistance they receive. Then ... the government eventually tells educators what to do ... Whether for good purposes or for evil purposes, Eisenhower continued, the ability to control education has the potential to be used to promote mind control and that should be enough to recommend against letting any such thing take root."

Yet apart from this very real concern, the issue of constitutionality is even more fundamental. As one scholar has written, "The History of the Formation of the Union under the Constitution, published by the United States Constitution Sesquicentennial Commission, under the direction of the president, the vice president, and the Speaker of the House in 1943, contained this exchange in a section titled 'Questions and Answers Pertaining to the Constitution:' Q. Where, in the Constitution, is there mention of education? A. There is none; education is a matter reserved for the states."

This is not the view only of hidebound conservatives who refuse to accept political reality (i.e., the U.S. Department of Education is here to stay, so make the best of it). Stephen Lurie, who advocates a constitutional amendment to guarantee the right to an education admits in a recent Atlantic article that in the U.S., there is no "constitutional, or statutory, guarantee of the right to education."

So, what does that matter? Not even the most strict originalist (and I hope I am in that category) believes the Education Department will evaporate immediately upon the accession of the next conservative President. And given the reliance of states and localities on Uncle Sam's education funding and bureaucracy, such sudden evaporation would cause dangerous disruption throughout the country. Bad idea, which is why I would argue for the gradual (but date-certain) return of education policy to the states and the careful dissolution of Washington's education behemoth.

But that's not the point here: the CCSS are premised on the supposition that the federal government has a role in developing and advocating for them, and perhaps even enforcing them. Conservatives should resist this assumption because the Constitution is a written text to which our allegiance must never be filed away between "archaic" and "irrelevant."

We cannot un-build Rome in a day. Yet let's never lose sight that if we do want to build a "more perfect union," the project of the incremental dissolution of Washington's accretions of power and erosions of liberty must never be abandoned.