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Standards Opinion

An Ominous Political Trend for Common Core-ites

By Rick Hess — August 15, 2012 4 min read
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When it comes to the Common Core, I see great potential value in states choosing to embrace common, high-caliber reading and math standards, if these are implemented with conviction and attention to how they will interact with current reforms. That said, seems to me there’s a huge chance that the whole exercise will go south, with many states implementing the Common Core half-heartedly, while screwing with existing reforms and standards. Such an outcome would ultimately do more harm than good. After all, the easiest course for states that have adopted Common Core standards but have second thoughts is to leave ‘em be, and then simply not follow through (especially since most state legislators would probably rather put money into salaries than Common Core’ish obligations for new tests, p.d., or instructional materials.)

This is where the Obama administration’s ham-handed machinations have been especially unhelpful, given that it’s easy for skeptics to argue that lots of states have essentially adopted the Common Core under duress. In particular, the Obama administration’s push in Race to the Top, its ESEA “blueprint,” NCLB waivers, and the rest has gradually turned the Common Core into a partisan issue that may enjoy enthusiastic backing from elite edu-Republicans like Jeb Bush and Mitch Daniels, but that is now seen by a growing swath of conservatives as just another facet of Obamaesque federal overreach.

This was made very clear to me this spring at a gathering of influential D.C. edu-cons. As two dozen or so discussed the Common Core over the course of the several hours, it became clear that no more than three or four were enthusiastically defending the project. Rather, the consensus seemed to be that common standards might make sense in principle, but that the Common Core effort had been badly tainted by federal overreach and had effectively become part of the Obama agenda. Indeed, a series of folks argued that the whole question was unnecessarily splitting conservatives and that the whole exercise ought to be treated as the Democrats’ problem.

Well, in the last few weeks, looks to me like the cautionary notes have multiplied.

• In Utah, the State Board of Education voted 12-3 to end the state’s membership in the Smarter Balanced Assessment Consortium.

• The American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC), the national organization of conservative state legislators, again took up the resolution its education taskforce had passed in December opposing national standards. That statement has not yet been formally adopted by the board. The hold-up? Turns out that ALEC’s membership is mixed on the idea of common standards, with many supportive in principle, but that there’s now firm sentiment opposing the Common Core--due mostly to the Obama administration’s aggressive involvement and its efforts to stir federal funds into the mix.

• Indiana’s Tony Bennett, perhaps the nation’s most unapologetically conservative state chief, ran into a buzzsaw of pushback at a tea party gathering on the question of the Common Core. Bennett conceded that the Obama administration “has an insatiable appetite for federal overreach” and that federal involvement in the Common Core “is wrong,” but that the effort was still deserving of support on its merits. The IndyStar observed that Bennett’s a natural ally of the tea party and that, “This debate with fellow conservatives isn’t easy for Bennett. He’s trying to make subtle distinctions about the importance of national standards...Bennett is more at home when he’s fighting against teacher unions and cumbersome contracts.”

• Conservative think tanks have started to spend increasing energy portraying the Common Core as a centralizing, illegitimate, big government push. The Pioneer Institute has long been sounding this note; it’s now being sounded with increasing force by folks like Lindsey Burke of the Heritage Foundation, Lance Izumi of Pacific Research Institute, and Utah’s Sutherland Institute (see here, here, and here).

Now, it’s easy for Common Core sophisticates, the Department of Ed, enthusiastic funders, and the “reform” community to dismiss all of this--after all, the only conservative most of them know or respect is Jeb Bush, and he’s with them. The Common Core’ites may find it easy to pooh-pooh such concerns as ideological, insignificant, misguided, and unserious. That’s their prerogative, but I think they’re misreading how this is going to affect the willingness of state leaders to secure broad-based support for the spending, assessment adoptions, and related measures it’ll take to successfully implement the Common Core.

With all the challenges ahead for the Common Core, including the legislative and state board decisions needed to support and finance implementation and the pushback emerging from certain precincts on the left, the exercise will only prove viable if it’s a bipartisan project. And, at least for now, looks like the odds of that are growing worse by the day.

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