ObamaCore: $16 Billion Unfunded Mandate

As Ronald Reagan said in 1964, our republic’s main public policy fight of the era is “[w]hether we believe in our capacity for self-government or whether we abandon the American Revolution and confess that a little intellectual elite in a far-distant capitol can plan our lives for us better than we can plan them ourselves.” He might have added that Beltway wonks wouldn’t even tell us how much their plans would cost. 

The Obama Department of Education and Washington, D.C.-based education trade groups are trying to transition America’s public schools to a set of nationalized K-12 education standards and tests called "Common Core." Across the country, that effort is becoming increasingly controversial. 

From Boston to Salt Lake City and Indianapolis to Tallahassee, public debate is raging over ObamaCore. Just in the last week, it has intensified in an unexpected place. Due to a firestorm of public disapproval, the New York Board of Regents has significantly postponed accountability for Common Core--until the Class of 2022.

The growing controversy surrounding Common Core began with heated arguments in several high-standards states about whether the new national standards are as academically strong as the state versions they will replace. These national standards are qualitatively inferior to the best state standards, including those in Massachusetts, Indiana, and California. 

Then, there was controversy about rival studies comparing existing state standards to the national ones being funded by the same organizations that were paid to develop the national standards. For example, in 2009, the D.C.-based Thomas B. Fordham Institute accepted nearly $1 million from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation (which had already paid to develop Common Core) to conduct side-by-side evaluations of Common Core and state standards.

After, came ongoing legal questions about whether coercive tactics used by President Obama’s Department of Education to get states to adopt Common Core and national tests violate federal laws. The Elementary and Secondary Education Act of 1965, signed by President Lyndon Johnson, specifies that “no funds provided to the Department [of Education] under this Act may be used … to endorse, approve or sanction any curriculum designed to be used in an elementary or secondary school.” 

Two other federal laws, including the 1979 legislation signed by President Jimmy Carter establishing the U.S. Department of Education, contain similarly clear language prohibiting a federal role in nationalizing standards, curriculum, and tests. The Common Core’s Beltway advocates seem to believe these federal laws are merely recommendations to be obeyed or disobeyed at will.

But relatively little attention has been paid to one of the most basic issues around national standards and tests: How much will it cost to convert to Common Core?

In the midst of all the controversy, it appears that very few of the 45 governors and state commissioners of education who adopted Common Core even calculated what their state and local transition costs would be. 

For instance, Massachusetts, the nation’s highest performing state in K-12 public education, has spent more than $100 billion over the last 20 years on its landmark education reforms. But neither Governor Deval Patrick nor Commissioner of Education Mitchell Chester, who heads up one of the two federally-funded national testing consortia, ever projected the cost of converting to Common Core.

According to a 2012 analysis published by Pioneer Institute, the only independent cost projection of its kind in the country, the national price tag for Common Core will come to nearly $16 billion over seven years--more than triple what the federal government gave out in the “Race to the Top” grants it used to coerce states to adopt the national standards and tests.

One-time costs like familiarizing educators with Common Core, obtaining new textbooks and instructional materials aligned with the standards, and necessary technology infrastructure upgrades will likely cost about $10.5 billion. Another $503 million will be incurred for first-year operational costs like technology training and support. Some states will also see their testing costs skyrocket, which has prompted Florida, Georgia, Oklahoma, Alabama, and Utah, among others, to withdraw from the national testing consortia.

On an ongoing basis, it will cost more than $800 million annually in years two through seven to support the enhanced technology infrastructure and introduce new testing that are currently being developed.

And these are only the direct transition costs. Combine the federal government’s efforts to persuade states to adopt Common Core with the fact that state and local taxpayers foot 90 percent of the bill for K-12 public education, and it appears to be another big, unfunded mandate from Washington, D.C.

In another example of Gates Foundation money funding research on Gates-developed national standards, the Fordham Institute’s cost projection of Common Core implementation, which conveniently came up with a low-ball national implementation cost, excluded technology, the single biggest cost driver.

California, which is one of the 45 states that adopted Common Core, provides an interesting case study. Its previous academic standards are among the nation’s best.

Few states have been hit by the budget tsunami California has endured in recent years. According to Pioneer Institute’s mid-range estimate, those woes will be exacerbated by seven-year transition costs of over $1 billion for technology and support, $606 million for professional development, and $374 million for textbooks and materials--all to facilitate the adoption of academic standards that are inferior to what that state already has.

States that adopted Common Core should have calculated their own transition expenses and engaged in a public discussion about the costs and benefits of adoption long ago. But like Massachusetts, few did. With state and local implementation now underway, the debate is simmering over whether the national standards represent the best investment of scarce education resources.

If they do, states should conduct a technology feasibility assessment to determine their readiness to implement the national standards. In addition, they should ensure that thorough professional development is available to all teachers so students have an adequate opportunity to learn the material on which they will be tested. They should also identify the resources needed to fully align instructional resources and materials with Common Core and analyze the future costs associated with the coming Common Core-based tests.  

“[T]he more the plans fail,” Ronald Reagan said, “the more the planners plan.” By tying the receipt of federal grant money, conditional waivers from the No Child Left Behind law, and even funding for poor school districts to adoption of Common Core and national tests, the Obama U.S. Department of Education has locked states into ever-mounting K-12 education costs without ever even bothering to mention the price.

It’s little wonder so many state legislators and taxpayers in red and blue states alike are now in open rebellion against Common Core.

Jamie Gass directs the Center for School Reform at Pioneer Institute, a Boston-based think tank where Charles Chieppo is a senior fellow.


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