Are the Common Core Standards Voluntary?

50323994Did states adopt the Common Core standards voluntarily, or were they forced to do so by the federal government?

I’m not sure why we would think the answer to that question matters very much. If adopting the CCSS would be good for a state, then their adoption by that state would be good. If adopting the new standards would be bad for a state, then the state shouldn’t adopt them. Information about how the standards are (or are not) adopted seems neither necessary nor sufficient to determine whether adoption should proceed.1

Still, suppose we’re really interested in whether or not the standards were “voluntary” for states. And let’s suppose, for the sake of argument, that it makes sense to talk about states doing things “voluntarily”, a substantial assumption given that “freedom” is a difficult concept to apply even to individual people.

So, were the standards voluntarily adopted by states? There is a prima facie case that they were, even if the Obama administration ended up supporting them. As Michael Petrilli says:

These standards started out as a state effort, with support from private entities like the Gates Foundation. It was the governors and state superintendents who came together, voluntarily, to draft higher common standards, because they acknowledged that their own state standards were set too low. There was already momentum behind the standards when the Obama administration intervened.

Along with the fact that not every state has adopted the CCSS, this is basically dispositive. If states mostly supported the standards prior to the Obama administration’s endorsement, it hardly makes sense to talk about the federal government “coercing” the states into adoption. If Arne Duncan hadn’t gotten involved it’s possible that some states may ultimately have decided not to adopt the standards they had helped to create, but “a few states were marginally more likely to adopt” hardly seems sufficiently coercive to justify the resulting libertarian outrage.2

Libertarians, however, have been outraged. Why? Here’s Neal McCluskey:

From the outset of the Obama administration, officials talked about a need for national standards, and under the mammoth 2009 “stimulus” they got a lever by which to push that: the $4.35 billion Race to the Top program. To fully compete for Race to the Top money states had to adopt standards common to multiple states, and only one set of standards fully met the definition: the Common Core.

This argument will baffle most people. How is being offered money to do something “coercive”? Presumably McCluskey is offered monetary compensation of some kind for his work with the Cato Institute; has he therefore been “coerced” into working there?

Most people, however, are not libertarians. McCluskey sneaks his premises in a little later in the argument:

Adopting the Common Core was, in principle, no more voluntary than having a mugger take your money — [state] taxpayer money — then let you “voluntarily” hand him the keys to your car to get the dough back.

Wait, what? McCluskey thinks paying your taxes to the federal government is morally equivalent to being mugged? You could be forgiven for thinking you misunderstood, but here he is replying to me last week on Twitter:

This is the classic anarcho-libertarian line on government: that its activity necessarily involves forcing people to do things they would prefer not to do and is ipso facto illegitimately coercive.3 Because this is such a fringe view many CCSS supporters have had a hard time understanding why anybody would consider, e.g., Race to the Top to be “coercive”. The answer is that some people think taxation is essentially theft.

Without getting too far into the weeds here, it’s worth mentioning why most people think being anti-coercion doesn’t mean that taxation is theft. First, “taxation is theft” strikes most people as a reductio ad absurdum of naive definitions of “coercion”. If you are using “coercion” in such a way that you have to conclude that taxation is the moral equivalent of armed robbery, something is probably wrong with your use of the word.

Second, most people believe that taxation is justified in one way or another. This may be because they view taxes as “the price we pay” for the various (typically larger) benefits of membership in society. Or it may be because they realize that your possessions and what they are worth are determined to a large extent by our social context, including our governmental institutions. If, e.g., the nominal and real value of your wages is a function of our social (and governmental) institutions, it becomes very difficult to discern how much of them (if any) is “yours” in a morally fundamental sense.4

So it is safe to say that the federal government did not coerce states into adopting the Common Core standards by offering  money to do so. But if carrots aren’t coercive, what about sticks? It is probably fair to say that sticks were in play:  

We’ve dispensed already with the “Fed $ from taxpayers under force of law” issue, but NCLB waivers appear to be somewhat different.

No Child Left Behind, you will recall, requires that states set learning standards for basic skills – reading and math, mostly – and get ever-increasing proportions of students over related proficiency thresholds. Over the years the requirements of NCLB have become more difficult for states to meet as proficiency targets have risen and Congress has failed to modify the legislation. As a result, the Obama administration offered states “waivers” to avoid many of NCLB’s accountability provisions in exchange for adopting other various reforms including, in many cases, the CCSS.

A somewhat more plausible case for federal coercion is this: States that did not adopt the CCSS would have a much harder time getting a waiver from NCLB, and without a waiver they would be subject to increasingly harsh penalties for failing to satisfy the law’s requirements.

Here, too, the libertarian arguments mostly don’t work.

First, it was possible to get a waiver without adopting the CCSS (as Virginia did) or just skip the standards altogether (as several states have).

Second, the provisions of No Child Left Behind are substantially voluntary. This has been largely forgotten, but states have several options for avoiding NCLB’s accountability penalties. NCLB allows states to set their own standards and proficiency levels, for example, and there are various ways of making sure your schools are not actually held to the highest proficiency standards. NCLB, moreover, is just another carrot: required only for states that wish to receive federal education funding.

In other words, when confronted with the possibility of adopting the Common Core standards, states actually had a substantial amount of flexibility.

There is arguably a naive sense in which states were “coerced” into adopting the CCSS in that some states may not have been completely satisfied with any of the options available to them. But by this standard virtually everything is coercive to one degree or another and the term is rendered meaningless for normative purposes. That conventional, lay-person use of “coercion” may be practically useful on a day-to-day basis, but it has no philosophical precision so it can’t do any philosophical work.

And this, I think, is why the debate over whether the CCSS are “voluntary” has been so intractable. The question is a philosophical (and possibly incoherent) one, but the parties involved – especially libertarian opponents – insist on using notions of coercion that are so imprecise (or loaded) that they can’t possibly settle it one way or the other.

  1. Of course, we should prefer to have a set of background institutions that effectively distributes power between different levels of government. Those concerns, however, are mostly neither here nor there when evaluating the merits of CCSS adoption since the standards have only minor – if any – implications for our background institutions. []
  2. Note also that the Obama administration’s belated involvement in the adoption process has been so polarizing that it’s not obvious the net effect was pro-CCSS in each individual state. There was a point at which CCSS supporters started asking them to back off the advocacy precisely because it seemed to be backfiring. []
  3. McCluskey claims not to endorse the anarcho-libertarian view, but it’s hard to know how else to interpret an analogy between taxation and armed robbery. []
  4. We have socially and economically useful private property institutions, but they depend heavily on coercion, especially government coercion, themselves. []
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