Brill: Let’s mess with Texas

Education in America

President Bartlett leans into the lectern: “Your state of Florida received $12.6 billion in federal aid last year,” he explains to Governor Rob Ritchie in their fictional debate of 2002. “Can we have it back please?”

In one more example of real life imitating television’s “The West Wing,” President Obama is poised to throw down this gauntlet against another governor perverting the idea of federalism: Rick Perry of Texas. As Josh Lyman cheered, “Game on.”

The Lone Star state has dominated the past few weeks of education news, nearly overshadowing the president’s plan for overhauling No Child Left Behind. On March 12, the state Board of Education voted largely along party lines to change social studies standards to reflect Christianist, conservative ideology, often at odds with vast historical consensus. In other words, Texas students will no longer be getting the facts of history, but rather the radical right’s interpretation.

Texas’s curriculum, which will shape the content of the state’s textbooks and yearly assessments, should startle anybody with a basic understanding of American history. One provision to the new standards, for example, aims to legitimize McCarthyism by pointing out cases of Soviet agents such as Alger Hiss and Klaus Fuchs. These spies — caught and prosecuted by the Truman administration in the late 1940s — of course had nothing to do with McCarthy’s reckless red-baiting of the mid-1950s, which resulted in the conviction of exactly zero people.

On another level, however, the school board’s vote might snap the reasonable center of this country into action.

As alarming as Texas’s new ideology-based history lessons are, the United States faces the scarier reality of math and English curricula that don’t prepare children for college or professional careers. Because the No Child Left Behind Act left standards and testing up to the states then penalized states for low test scores, the result has been a race to the bottom for our federalist patchwork of state curricula.

In Mississippi, for example, the percentage of fourth graders in 2003 proficient in reading, according to the well-esteemed National Assessment of Educational Process was just 18 percent. And how many passed the NCLB-mandated state test? A staggering 87 percent. In mathematics, only 17 percent were proficient on NAEP, while 74 percent passed the state test.

All of this is why 48 governors and state education chiefs came together more than a year ago to create voluntary, “common-core standards,” a basic roadmap for what American students should learn, and when they should learn it. A draft was announced March 10, and if adopted, these standards would signify perhaps the greatest change in American education since the founding of public schools in the late 1800s. Though it had no hand in crafting them, the Obama administration has heavily promoted the common standards, making their adoption virtually required for states to win federal dollars in from Race to the Top fund.

Which brings us back to our favorite state in the union. Perry, joined only by Alaska, said no to the hundreds of millions of dollars his state might have won. “I firmly believe,” he wrote in a letter to Education Secretary Arne Duncan, “that states like Texas … are best suited to determine the curriculum standards for their students — not the federal government.” In point of fact, the federal government did not “determine the curriculum standards.” Rather, governors and state education chiefs crafted a minimum core of standards with the help of education experts they hired.

Perry’s intransigence is not surprising, given his suggestion a year ago in front of Tea Party activists that Texas would be justified in seceding from the union if “Washington continues to thumb their nose at the American people.” Duncan and Obama have upped the ante. As part of the administration’s proposal for revamping No Child Left Behind, they asked Congress in February to make the adoption of the common-core standards mandatory if states wish to receive federal Title I funding.

In fiscal year 2007, the federal government gave Texas $4.5 billion, about 10 percent of the state’s education budget, and almost five times the average amount given to other states. If Texas won’t go along with common-sense, rigorous standards that governors across the nation can agree on, President Obama will ask, as he should, “Can we have it back, please?”

After all, the common-core standards represent the rational center of American politics. The Chamber of Commerce and the nation’s largest teachers’ union support them; 48 governors from Georgia’s Sonny Purdue to Massachusetts’s Deval Patrick support them. If Perry wants to deprive Texas children of rigor and reform to score political points, fine. But there’s no reason the rest of the nation must support Texas’s radical right-wing agenda. Game on.

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