Federal Curriculum 101

Last month, I joined 170 of my colleagues in voting ‘no’ on legislation that would dramatically expand the tentacles of the federal government into our nation’s classrooms. At the time, most of the attention given to the bill – both positive and negative – focused on its shift to the Direct Loan program, which turns the U.S. Department of Education into the nation’s largest (and only) provider of Stafford student loans.

Establishment of a federal monopoly over the most widely used type of college financial assistance is certainly cause for concern. However, for all the attention paid to the loan programs, the creeping federal expansion into other elements of our education system has virtually been ignored.

For example, perhaps you haven’t heard that the legislation creates a new $8 billion “early childhood” program that imposes federal standards on state pre-K programs. Or that it directs more than $6 billion to school construction, modernization, and renovation – making the U.S. Secretary of Education the Facilities Manager-in-Chief. The legislation also calls for $7 billion in various new initiatives to support community colleges – much of it duplicative of existing spending on job training and workforce development.

Also of concern, tucked away in this flood of federal spending is a rather innocuous sounding item called “Open Online Education.” The details of this half-a-billion dollar program are contained in a single legislative sentence. “From the amount appropriated to carry out this section, the Secretary is authorized to make competitive grants to, or enter into contracts with, institutions of higher education, philanthropic organizations, and other appropriate entities to develop, evaluate, and disseminate freely-available high-quality online courses, including instructional materials, for training and postsecondary education readiness and success.”

If you blinked, you might have missed it. But with those 53 words, the federal government may have just seized control of our nation’s college curriculum.

The American Enterprise Institute’s Frederick Hess followed this federal foray into college curriculum in a piece published earlier this month by Inside Higher Ed :

First off, it’s not clear what problem the administration hopes to solve. Online courses already exist and are offered by an array of publishers and public and private institutions. Access to online courses is hardly an issue. Online enrollment grew from 1.6 million students in 2002 to 3.9 million in 2007, when the figure equaled more than 20 percent of total enrollment at all U.S. degree-granting institutions. U.S. News and World Report reports that nearly 1,000 higher education institutions provide distance learning. For-profit online providers reported that online enrollment was up more than 25 percent from summer 2008 to 2009. …

Today, the chokepoint is often not the lack of existing online courses or materials but the fact that colleges and universities offer them at prices that approximate those charged to students enrolled in more costly traditional instruction. Of course, this stickiness in price has been due to credentialing and regulatory practices that impede the emergence of low-cost entrants; state-funded institutions that use new e-learning students to cross-subsidize other units; and proprietary operators that have happily responded to this cozy arrangement by competing on convenience rather than price. …

The measure also manages to raise concerns about academic freedom and stifling critical research and development.

Federal law has long buttressed academic freedom and intellectual pluralism by prohibiting the U.S. Department of Education from exercising control over “curriculum, program of instruction … text books, or other educational materials by any educational institution.” The administration would suddenly have the department funding the creation and dissemination of entire courses. Once the U.S. Department of Education is sponsoring a freely available course financed with taxpayer funds, it will be difficult for all but the most expensive or distinctive institutions or providers to justify paying for an alternative offering. For the huge swath of the curriculum represented by general and introductory courses, it is not a stretch to imagine that federally-sponsored courses would become a de facto national college curriculum.

Hess rightly points out that federal law prohibits the federal government from controlling curriculum … or exercising any “direction” or “supervision” over it, for that matter. The statute is clear – the federal government cannot, it must not, interfere with or even involve itself with what is taught in our classrooms.

Perhaps it’s no surprise that this Administration and its backers in Congress are quietly assuming control of college classrooms. With an army of czars and an explosion in federal programs, the individuals controlling the levers of power in Washington these days have charted a clear course for an activist federal government. But for those who understand that America’s higher education system is rooted in academic independence and educational freedom, the prospect of a federal curriculum is downright Orwellian.