School & District Management Opinion

This Is What Local Control Looks Like

By Dave Powell — January 12, 2015 7 min read
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There are times when you just have to shake your head at the absurdity of education policy and politics. This is one of those times. Courtesy of Greenville Online, an upstate newspaper in South Carolina:

Who instructs children on the gun rights and safety has traditionally been left out of the state's school systems, but bills pre-filed in both chambers of the South Carolina Legislature would bring gun rights squarely into focus in the classroom...One bill—pre-filed in the state House—would create a Second Amendment Awareness Day to be held on Dec. 15 each year in all state schools, complete with a poster or essay contest centered on the theme "The Right To Bear Arms: One American Right Protecting All Others."

Now, I have no idea if this is actually meant to be taken seriously. Maybe it’s a publicity stunt designed to motivate a particular demographic or assure a specific group of voters that their interests really are being taken seriously, no matter how crazy those ideas may seem to the rest of us. But the Myrtle Beach Republican who introduced this bill, Alan Clemmons, sure seems to be serious about it. In fact, it’s not just about Second Amendment Awareness Day. There’s more:

Students—at every grade level—would receive at least three weeks of education on their gun rights based on a curriculum chosen by the state Department of Education and approved or recommended by the National Rifle Association.

Let me repeat that last part again, just so we can savor it: this bill, if it became law, would mandate that every single school in the state of South Carolina devote three weeks of class time to teaching students about their “gun rights” in every single grade. That means three weeks on guns for 12th graders, and it means three weeks on guns for kindergarteners. If you know a kindergartener, please spend some time with that child this week and ask yourself: Is the thing missing from this young person’s life three weeks of mandated instruction in public school on his or her gun rights?

So, okay, I’m no gun enthusiast. I like to think that rational, well adjusted people, regardless of their affinity for guns, would agree that there is no reason whatsoever that any person under any circumstances in a civil society would need to own semi-automatic assault weapons, and I also side with the 92% of voters, 92% of gun owners, and 86% of Republicans who support universal background checks as a condition of purchasing a gun. That’s the least we could do, and we ought to do a whole lot more.

But this is beyond ridiculous. Let’s carefully consider what Rep. Clemmons wants to do here. He wants to let a special interest group (the NRA, no less) determine what gets taught for three weeks in South Carolina’s public schools (can you imagine, by the way, what it woud be like to go though twelve years of public schooling in a state where fifteen instructional days every year were devoted to the same narrow topic?). He wants to let that group write or approve the curriculum, and then he wants to force it on teachers in schools. This isn’t your run-of-the-mill “Obama and Gates are forcing common core on America because they have a corporate agenda and federal money to spend” kind of forcing; it’s a “this is the law of the state of South Carolina and if you do not teach this you will be in violation of the law” kind of forcing. It is, as they say, a horse of a different color.

It is also, I’m afraid, what “local control” looks like for a lot of Americans. In case you missed it, there’s a group out there called ALEC (that’s the American Legislative Exchange Council), whose stated goal is to “return sovereignty to the states.” What that means, in practice, is that the goal is to write model legislation (essentially, a blueprint for a law), then send it out to like-minded conservative representatives in state government and get it passed as law. It’s like Mad Libs for legislators. The goal here is not to make America more democratic (note the small D), but to subvert the political process by making de facto national laws that have never been considered by the national body politic. The fact that they’re written by what is essentially a special interest group representing various corporations and “charitable foundations,” not by elected officials, makes the work even more shady.

One of the most deadly attacks on the Gates Foundation’s involvement with common core, at least to me, was that Gates was once a member of ALEC too. But ALEC, despite what some people would have you believe, had nothing to do with common core in the first place; in fact, according to Mercedes Schneider, as vocal an opponent of common core as you’ll find anywhere, “Jeb Bush ‘talked ALEC into CCSS.’” Simply saying that some of the foundations that supported common core were members of ALEC doesn’t mean ALEC wrote the legislation that gave us common core. ALEC didn’t, and that’s a very important point.

So this is all starting to read like inside baseball—hang with me. Where did common core come from? It was created by a group of people—not enough of them teachers, apparently—who had no real connection to ALEC at all. Read the chart here under number four. Yes, there are some corporations and foundations on that list of supporters. And, yes, the Gates Foundation took on common core as a priority. (That’s the same Gates Foundation that also provides support for NPR Ed, host of the link I just provided—so, you know, it could be tainted information.) Did the federal government “force” common core on the states? No, it didn’t; read number five. Incentivizing something is not the same as forcing it on someone. In fact, the last time I checked, it was perfectly legitimate for a duly elected Congress to pass a law that provided funding for an office of the federal government, and then for that office or department to spend that money according to the political prerogatives of the people elected to run it.

You could make the argument that ALEC is doing the same thing but there’s a key difference: our president was elected, as was our Congress. The scholars behind ALEC (including the “father of supply-side economics”) are not. The people who introduce their legislation are, but as John Oliver points out, they sometimes do not even change the fonts on the paperwork before they introduce ALEC legislation as their own. Now, our elections are increasingly undemocratic—blame Citizens United and gerrymandering and voter ID laws and some other things for that—but they’re still more democratic than any interest group out there writing model legislation for lawmakers to carbon copy on their way to work.

And that brings us back to Rep. Clemmons. I have no idea if the bill he proposed was ALEC’s idea, but it’s worth noting that Clemmons is one of three state chairs for ALEC in South Carolina. It’s also worth asking the question: if we do kill common core, what will we end up with its place? State education standards were uneven to begin with (read: terrible), and teachers already have too much to teach and too little time to do it in. Maybe the solution is no standards, but that seems like a losing proposition destined to deepen inequality and, anyway, do you really think social conservatives eager to remake America in a different image want that? In a world where standards are pliable, what will stop conservative legislators from mandating curricular changes like the one proposed by Rep. Clemmons? Look to Oklahoma for a clue. There, when common core was repealed the state legislature insisted on having the right to approve the curriculum that replaced it. Connect the dots yourself. Here’s a list of all the politicians in Oklahoma known to be members of ALEC, according to the Center for Media & Democracy. You think they might choose to check in with their masters when it’s time to decide what goes into the curriculum?

It would be nice to live in a country where “grass roots” and “local control” really meant getting closer to the will of the people, but the political meaning of these terms was exposed a long time ago. Power is distributed so unevenly in our political system—and the distribution seems to be further skewed every day—that it sometimes seems there are no grass roots anymore. I don’t have a simple solution, and if I did this wouldn’t probably be the place to elucidate it. But I do think it would be smart for all of us who really care about diffusing power more democratically, and who care about the future of education policy, to be more aware of who our bedfellows are.

To me, that means supporting policies—regardless of their provenance—that attempt to level the playing field. Common core is not perfect, by any means, and I have said before that if we do decide to ditch it we should be careful not to end the conversation about standards along with it. That’s because power abhors a vacuum, and without a shared sense of what we want from schools somebody—somebody with power—is going to fill that vacuum. Right now ALEC and groups like it wield an awful lot of power over the people who make our laws. Is that who you want to be charge of your child’s education?

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