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We Don't Need No Federal Curriculum

Sharing Notes: Utah joins 34 other states to share education standards while some fear a federal takeover.


  • Larry Shumway
Utah recently joined 34 other states in adopting common standards for math and English/language arts achievement. While the common standards could provide a yardstick for improving education goals, some state leaders worry the yardstick could be wrested away from the states by the federal government and used to spank them into acceptance of a federal education curriculum.

The Utah State Board of Education unanimously approved the adoption after its third public discussion of the proposal on Aug. 6. The only concern among the members was the possibility of federal interference. Superintendent Larry Shumway (right) spoke of the fact that Utah may have lost out on receiving $175 million in “Race to the Top” federal-education-reform funding—money that could have helped implement Utah’s adoption of the new Common Core State Standards Initiative—because the state would not compromise on its education policies to make them more fed friendly.

“This is not a race to the top plan,” Shumway told the board “This is a plan to move Utah’s education forward.”

For a year, numerous states, including Utah, worked to establish standards that would provide benchmarks for students of individual states to reach, but leaves how schools and instructors get their students to those checkpoints up to each state’s curriculum. “There’s no common set of textbooks people have to buy, nothing that says every 11th grader is going to read Julius Caesar or anything like that,” Shumway says in an interview.

The Fordham Institute, a Washington, D.C., think tank that tracks education policy, predicted the standards will increase the quality of education for three-fourths of the states participating. In Utah, the expectation is that the state’s language-arts achievement will make a jump from a C ranking to a B.

Shumway feels Utah has already proven that it’s not willing to cede any sovereignty to federal control simply through the “Race to the Top” application, where he says Utah was disadvantaged for not enacting certain measures, such as policies that would allow the state to terminate bad teachers. Shumway says that in Utah, teachers unions are not the powerhouses they are in other states—like Illinois, where U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan hails from—so the state can more easily adopt a merit-based teaching system.

“[The federal] vision is geared more for urban settings like downtown Chicago.” Shumway says.

Even though Utah’s participation in the consortium comes with no federal money and is completely voluntary, that doesn’t allay fears that a common standard could be abused by an overreaching federal government.

“I’m concerned [that] when states all have the same standard, it gives the federal government the ability to create national standards or a national curriculum they can push on to states,” says Mathew Piccolo, a policy analyst for the Sutherland Institute, a conservative Utah think-tank.

That fear is shared by Rep. Carl Wimmer, R-Herriman, a member of the Education Interim Committee and co-founder of states-rights group the Patrick Henry Caucus.

“It’s a bad idea,” Wimmer writes in an e-mail. “We’re moving in the wrong direction. Instead of moving more to educational independence, we’re moving more toward national requirements and standards.”

Rep. Ken Sumsion, R-American Fork, founder of the Patrick Henry Caucus and also a member of the Education Interim Committee, however, recognizes that the adopted rules could greatly benefit education achievement in the state, so long as there is no federal money involved. Sumsion had even planned on submitting a bill in the Legislature to reject the state’s acceptance of the federal money had it been won.

“I don’t think anyone in the Legislature would be opposed to higher standards, if indeed these are higher standards,” Sumsion says. “My only issue is that we simply we have to stop taking the federal government’s bribe money.” Sumsion is confident Utah can make up for implementation costs expected to begin going into effect by 2014, through efficiencies in computerized testing that will allow for cuts in other testing areas of the budget.

Shumway says that while Utah has adopted a common standard, the state will only integrate into the new standard when the resources are available. As for concerns about the Common Core Standards being hijacked by the federal government, Shumway may not be worried, but he isn’t turning his back on the feds, either.

“It’s hard to look at Washington, D.C., these days and not have a concern,” Shumway says. “But as I assured the board today, we will be vigilant and oppose any federal take over as vigorously as we can.”