The Federal Takeover of Catholic Education


October 14, 2013

As teachers throughout the country introduced the new Common Core curriculum—the federal  standards for mathematics and English Language Arts—in their classrooms this fall, most parents had no idea this radical change in their children’s education was coming.  Some might have noticed over the past month that there were dramatic changes in the textbooks and tests that their children were bringing home.  Others may have noticed that in language arts, their children are now being introduced to some very different kinds of books—texts with more emphasis on technical or informational material, and less emphasis on classical literature.  It would be difficult not to notice, as the Common Core curriculum is a dramatic change in the ways in which education is being delivered.  Yet, few parents, and even fewer elected political representatives, knew this was coming.

A recent poll by Phi Delta Kappa International and Gallup revealed that 62 percent of the population has never heard about the Common Core curriculum.  Now that they are finally finding out about what can only be called a federal takeover of public education, it may be too late.  The curriculum has been created, the books have been purchased, and the standards have been implemented.  Assessment testing has already begun.  Many are asking how something like this could happen without parental and local input.  Others are wondering how education could have become federalized when there are already laws in place to prevent just such federal intervention?

The answer is that it was a stealthy appropriation by the federal government to take control of the curriculum in the local public schools—and now, in some private schools also.  The federal takeover involved no parental input, and very little involvement by elected representatives.  It had to be done covertly because there are indeed laws protecting states against unwanted federal intrusion into the educational curriculum of local school districts.  The General Education Provisions Act, the Department of Education Organization Act, and the Elementary and Secondary Education Act all protect states against intrusion by the United States Department of Education.  The problem is that the “intrusion” has not been entirely “unwanted” by state political leaders—especially the governors of each state.   Enlisting the state governors as allies in the creation of the curriculum through the National Governor’s Association,  the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation used the lure of more than $150 million in grant money—and the promise of future federal funds—to convince the leaders of budget-strapped states to support the federal standards.

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Working collaboratively with the Obama administration, the Gates Foundation helped to subsidize the creation of a national curriculum that has now been adopted by 46 states and the District of Columbia.  Endowing the creation of the Common Core State Standards in English language arts and mathematics, the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation has committed an additional $76 million to support teachers in implementing the Common Core—a standardized national curriculum.  This, on top of the more than 100 million they have already awarded to the National Governor’s Association and the Council of Chief State School Officers to develop the Common Core in the first place.

Although the Common Core was designed to address problems in the public schools, many Catholic schools have decided to adopt the Common Core standards also.  Eager to share in the largesse of the Gates Foundation, and the promise of future federal funds, Catholic school superintendents from more than 100 Catholic dioceses across the nation have embraced the federal education standards.  According to the National Catholic Register, the National Catholic Education Association (NCEA), while not formally endorsing the Common Core, has been holding workshops on how to implement the standards in Catholic schools.

Many parents of these Catholic school children are unhappy with the implementation of federal guidelines in their Catholic schools.  Catholic parents groups are emerging throughout the country to try and fight against the continued implementation of the Common Core. New Jersey parents have banded together to address the problems they see with the common core, and Pittsburgh Catholics Against the Common Core have organized to protest the implementation of the federal standards in their children’s Catholic schools. The National Catholic Register published comments from Ann Hynds, one of the members of the Pittsburgh parents’ group, who declared that “Catholic parents are so angry … we are the primary educators of our children, and we are being told not to worry, that they know better.”

These angry sentiments are echoed by many other concerned parents.  Most have said that they believe the Common Core will be detrimental to Catholic education—as Hynds said “Catholic educators all say how excellent Catholic education has always been.… So why are they doing this?”

That is a good question.  While it is understandable that the governors were empowered to make the decision in collaboration with their school superintendents, it is less clear how Catholic school superintendents were empowered to make the decision about Common Core unilaterally.  Many parents are asking whether their bishops were involved in the decision to implement the federal curriculum.

Still, there are many dioceses that have refused to implement the Common Core.  Richard Thompson, superintendent of Catholic schools for the Denver Archdiocese has refused to allow the Common Core in the Catholic schools there.  In a published interview in the National Catholic Register, Thompson said that he saw no need to install the federal standards in the Catholic schools in Denver because the schools are already “exceeding most of Common Core standards.  We’re already there and more.”

Indeed, this is a major concern for Catholic school parents. One of the reasons that many of these parents sent their children to Catholic schools was because of the academic rigor that was missing in the public schools.  In a critical op-ed published in the Wall Street Journal by Jamie Gass and Charles Chieppo, we learn that Stanford University emeritus mathematics professor James Milgram, the only academic mathematician on the Common Core’s validation committee, refused to sign onto the final draft.  Milgram described the Common Core standards as having “extremely serious failings” and reflecting “very low expectations.”  Reflecting these concerns, Phyllis Schlafly, President of the Eagle Forum wrote a letter to the Catholic bishops  warning them that in the Common Core,  “conceptual math has replaced fundamentals,” and “Euclidian geometry was displaced.”  She also asserted that in language arts, students are forced to read texts “in a vacuum” without contextual information, and lamented the reductions in classical literature that accompanied the Common Core.

Parents are worried.  So concerned about the negative response to the Common Core from parents of Catholic school children that Father Peter Stravinskas, executive director of the Catholic Education Foundation, has scheduled a conference titled “Catholic Concerns About the Common Core” in Elberon, New Jersey next month (at the Stella Maris Retreat Center on November 5-6).  The National Association of Private Catholic and Independent Schools will co-host the event with the schools office of the Diocese of Gaylord, Michigan, and the superintendent of high schools of the Archdiocese of Los Angeles.  Father Stravinskas has warned that since the SATs and other standardized tests will be geared to the Common Core, Catholic schools need to pay attention to the federalized standards.

Education policy expert, Diane Ravitch appears to agree with Father Stravinskas about the standardized testing issues.  Ravitch pointed out that since David Coleman, the primary architect of the Common Core standards has become president of the College Board, “we can expect that SAT will be aligned to the standards.  No one will escape their reach, whether they attend public or private school.” Even homeschooled children will be vulnerable to the federalization of public education standards.

It is possible that some school districts—especially those in economically deprived areas—will benefit from the federal intervention in their local schools.  But, it is difficult to see how inviting the federal government into our Catholic schools to help create a new curriculum can make things better.


  • Anne Hendershott

    Anne Hendershott is Professor of Sociology and Director of the Veritas Center for Ethics in Public Life at Franciscan University of Steubenville, OH. She is the author of The Politics of Envy (Crisis Publications, 2020).

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