‘Totalitarian’ Education on the Rise? Actually, States and Districts Are Taking Full Ownership of School Performance


Last December, the Every Student Succeeds Act was signed into law, permanently replacing No Child Left Behind and marking a historic return of control over education issues to states and districts. Calling it a “huge win for conservatives,” Congressman John Kline, chairman of the House education committee, explained that the law enables, and, in fact, requires, states and districts to take ownership of their standards and accountability systems.

“We have to empower parents with choice,” Rep. Kline said in December. “We have to reduce the huge federal footprint in education… The federal government should not be able to tell states what standards they can or cannot adopt.”

Still, some education commentators seem to ignore the historic shift back to state and local control. In a piece published by the Daily Caller, Heartland Institute Policy Advisor David Anderson argues that public schools are largely controlled by federal forces, eroding local control.

Drawing comparisons to a “communist system,” Anderson alleges that, “The public education system in the United States is becoming unquestionably totalitarian… We have seen it lose its pluralistic characteristics. Standards and the curricula that go with them are now being centrally dictated through Common Core Standards and other federal mandates.”

Objective analyses have repeatedly rejected claims like Anderson’s that say states were coerced into adopting high, comparable education standards or assessments aligned to those expectations.

Even so, if parents still harbored any doubts, they are addressed by the Every Student Succeeds Act, which explicitly prohibits the federal government from requiring states to use any specific standards or assessments. As the Washington Post’s Lyndsey Layton put it, “States decide academic standards. That has been true for years but was spelled out explicitly by the [Every Student Succeeds Act].”

Education best meets students’ needs when it is managed by those closest to home—state officials and local school boards. That’s where decisions are now being made, and overwhelmingly states and districts are moving forward with a high, comparable baseline for student achievement.

A Harvard study this year notes, “In short, the Common Core consortium has achieved one of its key policy objectives: the raising of state proficiency standards throughout much of the United States.” In fact, only one state—Oklahoma—has reverted back to inferior learning goals.

With a rigorous baseline in place, most states continue to build on and tailor their education standards to meet their students’ and teachers’ needs—exactly the kind of local control parents should demand. States are shrugging off labels and doubling down on their commitment to rigorous, consistent academic expectations and high-quality assessments. That’s a huge success that puts control exactly where it should be: close to home.