David Whitman wrote a paper for the Brookings Institution called “The Surprising Roots of the Common Core: How Conservatives Gave Rise to ‘Obamacore.'” The goal of the paper is to persuade readers that conservatives, starting in the Reagan administration, laid the groundwork for national standards and tests. As a participant in some of the events he describes, I have a somewhat different take on the past.

Whitman was Arne Duncan’s speechwriter from 2009 to 2014. He is the author of a 2008 book for the Thomas B. Fordham Institute calling “Sweating the Small Stuff,” which praises “no-excuses” charter schools. His prime example was the American Indian Charter School in Oakland, whose leader subsequently resigned after $3.8 million went missing in a state audit. Given Whitman’s admiration for “no excuses” schools, it makes sense that he wrote speeches for Arne, who believes in them as an effective answer for the educational crisis of African American students who live in poverty.

There are several major differences between the advocacy for national standards in the Bush 1 administration and in the Obama administration.

First, the effort to develop voluntary national standards in the early 1990s did not take place in secret, as did the drafting of the Common Core standards.

Second, the mechanism of the Bush administration was not to convene a secret and unaccountable committee to write standards but to award grants to the nation’s leading organizations that represented teachers and scholars in each field. There was no federal involvement in the writing of the standards; each field wrote its own document about what students should know and be able to do.

Third, the Bush 1 effort was not limited to reading and math. It included the arts, science, foreign languages, history, economics, civics, and physical education.

Fourth, the Bush 1 effort did not direct any teacher about how to teach. The standards were guides, not directives.

Fifth, the Bush 1 strategy was a low-cost effort, as compared to the CCSS. The Bush 1 administration spent about $10 million, as compared to the $200+ million spent by the Gates Foundation to subsidize the CCSS.

Sixth, unlike CCSS, the Bush 1 push for voluntary national standards did not include any element of coercion. Teachers, schools, districts, or states could use them or not. The standards were truly voluntary. The theory of action was that if they were good, states would copy them, or parts of them, if they so chose.

Seventh, unlike the CCSS, there was no national public relations campaign to promote them on national television and in the print media.

Eighth, the Bush 1 voluntary national standards quickly failed after the U.S. history standards became a nasty, politicized national controversy in 1994. But when the standards failed, they didn’t drag anyone down with them, because so little was expended to create them. The Bush 1 standards did not take billions away from other purposes of schooling. They did not suck up education dollars as schools were forced to absorb budget cuts. They did not lead to increases in class sizes and billions spent on consultants and technology.

At the time the Bush 1 standards were written, Senator Lamar Alexander was Secretary of Education. He does not believe that the federal government should force states and districts to reform their schools to satisfy federal mandates. He has always opposed a “national school board.” Even as Secretary, he did not want that power. He believes in federalism.

Unfortunately, the Obama administration and the Department of Education do not understand federalism. They do not understand that federal laws specifically prohibit any federal official from attempting to influence or control curriculum or instruction. They recklessly promoted the Common Core standards, and they paid $360 million for testing the Common Core standards. Secretary Duncan pretends that the setting of national standards and the creation of tests aligned to those standards have nothing to do with either curriculum or instruction. What the federal government, and Secretary Duncan in particular, have done in trying to establish national standards and tests violates federal law. It is not only illegal, it is impractical. The theory seems to be that if everyone studies the same subjects and has the same tests, everyone will become equally successful. This is absurd. And the test results prove that the theory is absurd on its face.

Defend the Common Core standards if you wish. Use them if you choose. But please don’t say that they are a direct descendant of the failed effort in 1991-92 to create voluntary national standards, written by teachers and scholars. The Common Core standards will fail, not only because they cost billions to implement, but because of their indifference to teachers and to democratic processes.