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Federal Opinion

Political Peril for the Common Core?

By Michael D. Usdan — October 25, 2010 3 min read
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Despite recent progress in moving toward a more rational consensus on national standards—and the admirable political acumen exercised by the National Governors Association, the Council of Chief State School Officers, and others in achieving this—the Common Core State Standards Initiative remains in its infancy, with serious implementation and other issues looming.

Now, many of the initiative’s supporters fear that it could be swept up in the anti-federal-government backlash that has characterized campaigning for midterm elections. Bitter opposition to the centralization of power in education could outweigh the rationality that went into this worthy and necessary move toward common standards. In fact, the undertaking could be threatened by the same negative political sentiment being stirred now by perceived federal intrusions in health care, finance, private corporate operations, and other key policy realms.

It’s true that the election results on Nov. 2 may produce a power shift that could ultimately cripple efforts to create stronger common standards and assessments. Likewise, the Obama administration’s exploratory efforts to link the core standards to the reauthorization of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act could prove to be the kiss of death for the initiative, because of mounting opposition to the expansion of “big” government across policy and intergovernmental realms.

Yet it is also true that the common standards initiative has drawn widespread praise and support from diverse quarters: It is seen as an important step forward in the nation’s struggle to reach consensus on what should constitute accepted standards in the core areas of English/language arts and mathematics. And while there has been much criticism from skeptics who fear the development of national or federal standards under the guise of what are now called “common” standards, remarkably, there has been a broadly gauged acceptance of the initiative. Indeed, a majority of states—perhaps spurred on by hopes of winning federal Race to the Top dollars tied to it—have quickly endorsed the standards.

The election results on Nov. 2 may produce a power shift that could ultimately cripple efforts to create stronger common standards and assessments.

But some revenue-starved states may have acquiesced reluctantly to the lure of badly needed federal dollars. We should not discount the resiliency of the local-and-state-control culture within influential education and public-policy circles. Moreover, there is a deep-seated resentment toward the administration, particularly among traditional allies within the large-membership national education groups that have great political leverage at the local and state levels. In all likelihood, K-12 school groups will not support Democrats with the fervor they demonstrated in the 2008 presidential election. If the backlash against Washington materializes at the ballot box next week, there may well be a diminution not only of federal influence, but also of centralized policy initiatives of any kind. And K-12 groups could find themselves aligned with anti-Washington, anti-tax factions that are not their natural political bedfellows.

At such a politically sensitive time, it might be foolhardy to create any new formal governance mechanism for the common-standards initiative—an idea being discussed in certain circles. Such action might well jeopardize the initiative’s future at a time of great uncertainty.

The NGA and the CCSSO have thus far demonstrated both political smarts and substantive results in their leadership of the initiative, and they should continue to operate as they have until the policy implications of the midterm elections are clearer. The current environment is replete with major, but volatile, initiatives that will play out over the next few months. Federal programs such as the Race to the Top and the Department of Education’s grant competition for new assessment systems may well reshape the educational landscape in a dramatic fashion, and with unpredictable consequences.

In the short run, though, there is too much policy uncertainty to tinker with developing a permanent governance structure or a more explicit federal role for the Common Core State Standards Initiative. This uncertainty could be further exacerbated by a dramatic, if not traumatic, leadership churn that will likely occur at the state level following the elections. With approximately two-thirds of the governorships and as many as 18 of the chief-state-school-officer positions being determined by the results of the 2010 off-year elections, there will be startling turnover and change.

For the immediate future, then, we should let the NGA and the CCSSO continue their good work, and hold the complicated long-range governance issues and the question of an ultimate federal role in abeyance.

A version of this article appeared in the October 27, 2010 edition of Education Week as Political Peril for the Common Core?

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