Published Online: February 25, 2014
Published in Print: February 26, 2014, as Some in Congress Adding Fuel to Common-Core Debate

Partisan Split on Common Core Evident in Congress

A spate of Republican-sponsored legislation on Capitol Hill makes clear that the partisan edge to criticism of the common-core academic standards isn't restricted to state legislatures.

Some GOP lawmakers—including members who are up for re-election or seeking higher office—have introduced bills that would admonish the Obama administration for its role in bolstering the Common Core State Standards and, in some cases, bar federal use of competitive grants or regulatory flexibility to encourage their adoption. The standards, which were developed through a partnership of the National Governors Association and the Council of Chief State School Officers, have been adopted by 46 states and the District of Columbia.

Coming at the kickoff of the 2014 congressional midterm elections, the bills may help conservative lawmakers shore up their base and fend off potential primary challenges. But it's unlikely President Barack Obama would sign such legislation, so a debate in either chamber of Congress on the legislation would be largely symbolic.

Jayden Jacobsen raises his hand during a lesson at Freeman Elementary School in Freeman, S.D. The state is implementing the Common Core State Standards this year in English/language arts and mathematics. The common core has prompted fierce debate in state legislatures and is the topic of legislation in Congress.
—Jeremy Waltner/AP

Political Stakes

Even a symbolic debate could be politically perilous for the common core, said Phillip Lovell, the vice president for federal advocacy at the Alliance for Excellent Education, a nonprofit policy group that has been a longtime cheerleader for higher standards.

"I think the debate in itself is harmful because it sends the wrong message," he said. "It says Washington has something to do with [common core] when Washington had nothing to do with it. Those who have introduced the legislation are essentially demeaning decisions that the majority of states have made."

But Jim Stergios, the executive director of the Boston-based Pioneer Institute, which opposes the new standards and has been helping state-level political groups advocate against them, said there's definitely a role for Congress in challenging the administration's championship of common core. In fact, he's surprised that it took lawmakers this long to assert themselves.

"Frankly, it should have bubbled up long ago," Mr. Stergios said. And he doesn't expect opposition to die down anytime soon. "I think this is one of the big issues going forward; it's cresting as an issue around this election cycle," he said. He expects the debate to continue well into the 2016 presidential race.

Lawmakers Weigh In

The Common Core State Standards, which have been adopted by 46 states and the District of Columbia, have been a hot topic in statehouses over the past year. Now, the U.S. Congress is getting in on the action, releasing bills that take a stand on the appropriate role for the federal government in bolstering the common core or any other set of standards.

Federal Role on Hot Seat

• Resolution, Common Core, H.Res. 476, S.Res. 345
A nonbinding "sense of Congress" resolution introduced in each chamber proclaims education as a state and local issue, and admonishes U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan and President Barack Obama by name for giving states that adopt Common Core a leg-up in the Race to the Top grant competition, financing assessments linked to the standards, and encouraging the adoption of the standards through the waivers from parts of the No Child Left Behind Act.
Sponsors: Sen. Lindsay Graham, R-S.C., and Rep. Jeff Duncan, R-S.C. Has 46 co-sponsors in the House and 9 in the Senate.
Status: Introduced Feb. 6, 2014, in the U.S. Senate, and Feb. 11 in the U.S. House of Representatives.

• Learning Opportunities Created at Local Level Act, S. 1974
Would prohibit the federal government from intervening in a state’s education standards, curricula, and assessments through grants, waivers, or other incentives.
Sponsors: Sen. Pat Roberts, R-Kan.
Status: Introduced Jan 30, 2014.

• Educational Freedom Act, H.R. 4008
Would prohibit any federal official from using—directly or indirectly—grants, contracts, and other methods to "mandate, direct, incentivize or control" state and local standards and curricula, including the common core.
Sponsors: Rep. Phil Gingrey, R-Ga., with 4 co-sponsors
Status: Introduced Feb. 6, 2014.

Defending Common Core

• Resolution Supporting the Common Core, H.Res. 43
A non-binding "sense of the House of Representatives" resolution that would commend the National Governors Association and the Council of Chief State School Officers for their efforts to "increase the rigor, utility, and comparability of state academic standards" through the development of the common core.
Sponsors: Rep. Chaka Fattah, D-Pa.
Status: Introduced Jan. 23, 2013.

Renewal of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act

• Student Success Act, H.R. 5
Would bar the U.S. secretary of education from, directly or indirectly, attempting to "influence, incentivize, or coerce" a state to adopt common core or any other set of standards.
Sponsors: Rep. John Kline, R-Minn.
Status: Passed the House July 19, 2013, by a vote of 221 to 207, with only Republican support.

• Strengthening America's Schools Act, S. 1094
States would have to adopt standards that prepare students for postsecondary education and the workforce, but those standards would not necessarily have to be the same as the Common Core State Standards.
Sponsors: Sen. Tom Harkin, D-Iowa
Status: Passed June 12, 2013, by the Senate Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions Committee with only Democratic support.

• Every Child Ready for College or Career Act, S. 1101
Would require states to adopt "challenging" academic standards, but would prohibit the secretary of education from directing or controlling state standards.
Sponsors: Sen. Lamar Alexander, R-Tenn.
Status: Introduced June 6, 2013.

The Obama administration gave common-core states an edge in the high-profile Race to the Top grant competition, and directed $360 million in federal stimulus funds to two consortia of states to develop tests that align with the standards. And the department made adoption of college- and career- ready standards a requirement for states that wanted a waiver from the No Child Left Behind Act. Common core fit the bill, but some states—including Virginia and Texas—were able to get a waiver without adopting the standards.

The most prominent recent legislation criticizing the Obama administration's role in pushing the common core is a nonbinding resolution, introduced earlier this month by Sen. Lindsay Graham, R-S.C., a moderate who is working to fend off several primary challengers.

The resolution, which was also introduced in the House by Rep. Jeff Duncan, R-S.C., has garnered eight Senate co-sponsors, including some Republicans locked in tight races, such as Sen. Mike Enzi of Wyoming, the former education chairman who has been a leader on K-12 issues. It also has the support of tea party favorites, such as Sen. Mike Lee. R-Utah.

The resolution would make clear that education is a state issue, and that the U.S. Secretary of Education should not coerce states into adopting the common core standards. Similar resolutions have been introduced by Sen. Pat Roberts, R-Kan., who is also up for re-election this year, and Rep. Phil Gingrey, R-Ga., who is running for Senate.

Chris Minnich, the executive director of the Council of Chief State School Officers, said he's not opposed to bills or resolutions clarifying that the U.S. Secretary of Education doesn't have a role in encouraging a particular state to adopt standards—that would just affirm current law, he said.

But he's concerned about legislation that specifically cites the common core, as do the Graham, Duncan, Roberts, and Gingrey bills.

"It's okay if they want to confirm that states have a right to set their own standards," Mr. Minnich said. "But if they're going to call out common core, they should also call out [other sets of standards such as in] Texas and Massachusetts."

Possibly widening the partisan divide: There's at least one piece of legislation, introduced by a Democrat, Rep. Chaka Fattah of Pennsylvania, which seeks to support the common-core standards.

ESEA Implications

It may be telling that lawmakers continue to release the bills even though Republicans in the U.S. House of Representatives and the U.S. Senate have already spoken loud and clear when it comes to the standards. Bills to renew the Elementary and Secondary Education Act introduced by House and Senate GOP education leaders would also prohibit the secretary from tying grant money—or regulatory flexibility—to a state's adoption of academic standards. The House version specifically mentions the common core. It passed that chamber last summer, with only Republican support.

Still, the common core wasn't discussed much during floor consideration of the bill. There was speculation that House leaders discouraged conservative lawmakers from arguing against the standards, since they continue to have support among GOP state chiefs, governors, the business community, and other prominent Republicans. For instance, former Gov. Jeb Bush, widely mentioned as a likely GOP presidential candidate, is a big booster.

Related Blog

The bills are just the latest instance of the standards as a federal flashpoint. Last year, Sen. Charles Grassley, R-Iowa, urged his fellow Iowan, Sen. Tom Harkin, a Democrat who chairs the panel that oversees education funding, to include language in a spending bill barring the Education Department from directing any money to state implementation of the standards, or the tests that go along with them. (Sen. Harkin's response was that the common core is a state-led effort.) And last year, the Republican National Committee passed a resolution lambasting the standards.

Meanwhile, the Democratic Party included language in its 2012 presidential platform that hailed the common core—and gave President Obama credit for his role in bolstering the standards.

Vol. 33, Issue 22, Pages 13,16

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