SACRAMENTO, Calif. – Americans who believe that public education is the domain of local and state governments – and not of the federal government –need to pay attention to what’s going on in California.

Arne DuncanIn early October, Gov. Jerry Brown signed Assembly Bill 484 into law, which ended the use of state standardized tests in California schools and funded a trial run this year of new Common Core-aligned assessments, reports

Brown agreed with a majority of California’s legislators that it didn’t make sense to test students with the old state tests – which were based on the old state math and English learning standards – while schools are making the transition to the new Common Core standards.

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The majority of California students will still take a standardized assessment this school year, but the results won’t officially count. That’s because the real purpose of this year’s “field tests” will be to work out any bugs in the new computer-based, Common Core-aligned assessments before they take full effect next year.

One teacher union official probably spoke for many Californians when he defended the lawmakers’ decision by saying, “It makes no sense to test students on material they haven’t been taught or to force them to take two tests.”

In faraway Washington D.C., U.S. Education Secretary Arne Duncan strongly disagrees and he’s planning to take stiff action against the rebellious state. reports that Duncan’s department plans to punish the California lawmakers’ decision by withholding $15 million the feds normally send to the California Department of Education for administrative purposes.

One of Duncan’s underlings sent a letter to California officials warning the feds might also take back the $30 million they gave the state last year to help pay for student testing.

And that’s only the beginning.

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The education official’s letter warned that the penalties could climb much, much higher, as some of the $3.5 billion in Title I funds the feds send to California are linked to annual testing results. Title I money directly impacts students and classrooms, reports.

California’s state school board President Michael Kirst expressed dismay that Duncan might inflict harm at the classroom level, just to make his point.

“Federal officials have never before taken money out of classrooms, and we would hope and expect that they would not start now,” Kirst said in a recent statement.

There’s a first time for everything, and Duncan seems prepared to act.

The education secretary appears more concerned about protecting his “no test results, no money” policy – apparently granted to him under No Child Left Behind – than in shielding students from the effects of a political squabble. Duncan clearly wants the testing data from the current school year to use in measuring the effectiveness of teachers, principals and schools.

That strikes many observers as needlessly petty and borderline obsessive-compulsive. Everyone agrees the feds’ data flow will resume once the new Common Core assessments go “live” next school year.

Most Americans probably don’t care whether or not California students are given “official” tests this year or not. Nor do they care to suffer through the details about who’s right and who’s wrong in regard to the testing reprieve.

What Americans should find important about this situation, however, is that an unelected bureaucrat in the nation’s capital is using the levers of our central government to punish a state over the decisions its duly-elected leaders made about a state issue.

Duncan’s power play should frighten all Americans who value the constitutional principle of local- and state-controlled public schools.