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Education policy maven Rick Hess of the American Enterprise Institute think tank offers straight talk on matters of policy, politics, research, and reform. Read more from this blog.

Federal Opinion

School Choiceniks: Think ‘Common Core’ and Be Careful What You Wish For

By Rick Hess — January 30, 2017 3 min read
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As the debate over Betsy DeVos’s nomination plays out, I’m struck by how much of the back-and-forth seems to have the combatants standing in the wrong places.

If I was a passionate opponent of school choice, I think I’d be ecstatic at the prospect of having Donald Trump’s administration champion a big, visible, controversial school choice bill. I’d love to turn the localized, diffuse campaign for choice into a prominent part of Trump’s federal agenda. I’d welcome the chance to frame school choice as a debate about whether Washington ought to be telling states and communities how to run their schools, and to turn the issue into a referendum on how one feels about Trump.

As someone who favors efforts to expand educational choice, I can’t think of anything less helpful than making this broad-based, decentralized effort feel more like a creature of Washington. That would be true in any event, but especially when the president in question is as polarizing as Trump. I see real value in having Washington make it easier for states and communities to more readily expand options if they’d like, but that calls for a clear-headed discussion of Washington’s role—not reflexive cheerleading for school choice.

Rather than discuss what Washington should or shouldn’t do when it comes to school choice, though, the debate is playing out as an exchange of school choice talking points. Much has been said about charter schools in Michigan and Detroit, about accountability for voucher programs, and even the views of DeVos’s family members!—but all of this has been almost comically removed from the question of what any of this means for federal policy.

Whether one thinks DeVos’s views of school choice are “right” or “wrong,” the most important question for a U.S. Secretary of Education is how she intends to use that office to promote the things she believes in. And that question has received astonishingly little examination—at a time when it should be the center of attention.

After all, we’ve just witnessed the biggest Pyrrhic victory in the annals of federal education policy. I’m referring, of course, to the Common Core. Recall that, back in 2009 and 2010, Common Core advocates thought they had a slam dunk on their hands. Once, it was laughable to suggest that the Common Core might wind up being controversial. (I know, because I used to get laughed at when I’d suggest it.)

Many things went south. But the most costly may have been the energetic boost they got from the Obama administration—assistance that, at the time, struck Common Core proponents as such a remarkable gift. The Obama team made the Common Core a key part of Race to the Top, earmarked $350 million to create new Common Core-aligned tests, and pushed states to adopt the Common Core if they wanted relief from NCLB. This didn’t make the Common Core a federal program, but it did mean that Washington’s fingerprints were all over it. As a result, the Common Core got enmeshed in partisan debates and concerns about Obama-style federal overreach. Claims about the Common Core being “state-led” and “voluntary” started to ring hollow for many.

It’s easy to imagine Trump doing for school choice what Obama did for the Common Core. That prospect should make school choice advocates nervous. If you ask an Obama or a Trump to champion your cause, they’re going to wind up leading the parade. At times, of course, this can be an asset. Obama was a hugely popular figure in 2009, and his appeal could boost policies he liked. That year, the annual Education Next poll found that being told President Obama supported charter schools had the effect of making respondents 11 percentage points more likely to endorse charter schooling. But as Obama’s glowing early numbers faded, his support had very different connotations.

In retrospect, it’s fair to say that most Common Core advocates now wish Obama hadn’t been quite so helpful. This is particularly telling today, given that President Trump boasts the lowest level of popular support ever recorded at the start of a presidency. Keep in mind that school choice has enjoyed remarkable success over the last quarter-century as a bottom-up phenomenon. Choice advocates have built complex alliances and cultivated indigenous support across states and communities. Given that, the price of putting a federal face on the effort seems exceptionally steep. Agree or not, that’s what we should be discussing. The question we should all be asking of DeVos and Trump’s education team is not whether they like school choice in the abstract, but what they intend to do in Washington.

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