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CATCH-22: Could Reforming No Child Left Behind Actually Save Common Core?

Republican Sen. Lamar Alexander’s new draft bill to reform No Child Left Behind (NCLB) is set to scale back the role of the federal government in education, possibly significantly.

For conservatives hostile to a strong federal role in education, Alexander’s proposal has a lot to be happy about, as it eliminates several federal programs, ends the burdensome requirement that states make annual progress towards proficiency, and opens the door to a reduction in annual standardized tests.

One group, however, may not be smiling in the end: opponents of Common Core. At least one supporter of the standards says that a Republican-led reform of NCLB could end up saving the controversial multistate standards.

“It would be great” for Common Core if a Republican Congress rolls back federal oversight,” Michael Petrilli, president of the center-right Fordham Institute, told The Daily Caller News Foundation.

Petrilli argues that by reducing the power held by Secretary of Education Arne Duncan, lawmakers at the state level will have less reason to fear that Common Core is a Trojan horse designed to surrender control of education to the federal government.

While Common Core began as a collaborative effort between state governments with no federal involvement, the Obama administration later took up the mantle of promoting the standards’ adoption. Under Race to the Top, the Obama administration encouraged states to adopt various education reform initiatives by dangling the promise of federal stimulus dollars for states that were the most ambitious reformers. One way states could improve their chances of winning was by adopting Common Core. Similarly, adopting Common Core was one way states could improve their chances of receiving a federal waiver from various NCLB requirements.

These various incentives have now backfired, as conservative opponents of Common Core have used them as evidence that, in the end, the standards are just a federal imposition on the power of states to set their own academic standards. That argument has helped lead to the repeal of Common Core in Oklahoma, Indiana and South Carolina. In Louisiana, Gov. Bobby Jindal has filed a federal lawsuit seeking to have the standards thrown out as an illegal federal infringement on state sovereignty.

Last summer, Petrilli told TheDCNF that Race to the Top had “poisoned the well” for Common Core by attaching President Barack Obama and all of his political baggage to the initiative. Now he says that a significant rollback of the Department of Education’s influence would help send the message that such federal meddling with state standards “is in the past.” (RELATED: Common Core Backers Regret Obama’s Involvement)

Alexander, who served as secretary of education himself under President George H.W. Bush, appears to have given Petrilli his wish with his new draft bill. The section of the bill dealing with standards would prohibit the secretary of education from attempting to “mandate, direct, control, coerce, or exercise any direction or supervision” over state-level education standards. The clause appears to prohibit some of the tactics the Obama administration has used to encourage Common Core’s adoption.

That’s “the best thing Congress could do to help this Common Core debate,” Petrilli said.

Alexander himself has largely stayed away from the Common Core debate, refusing opportunities to either condemn or support the standards. Whether to adopt the standards is purely a state-level decision, he has said, and his draft bill appears to underscore that attitude.

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