Traction Limited in Rolling Back Common Core

By Andrew Ujifusa — April 21, 2015 8 min read
Mississippi state Sen. Chris McDaniel argues against supporting a bill that would establish a group to study whether the state should modify or walk away from the Common Core State Standards, saying the commission would have "no teeth."

For many foes of the Common Core State Standards, this was supposed to be the year their advocacy and passion would translate into victories.

Emboldened by last year’s experience, when three states—Indiana, Oklahoma, and South Carolina—decided to at least nominally reject the common core, opponents of the standards aimed to keep the ball rolling in the 2015 state legislative season.

But with the clock ticking on many of those sessions, the opponents have little to cheer about so far.

To date, 19 states this year have considered bills to repeal the common core, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures—but none has adopted such legislation. In Arizona, Montana, North Dakota, and South Dakota, repeal proposals have lost what amounted to do-or-die votes, while states including Mississippi and West Virginia have changed repeal proposals into legislation requiring a review of the standards instead.

Michael J. Martirano West Virginia Superintendent of Schools

“I treated it as if I were teaching a lesson,” said West Virginia Superintendent of Schools Michael J. Martirano, who successfully lobbied against a repeal effort in his state this year, but has initiated a review of the standards in the state. “There was a lack of understanding on the basic knowledge of what people were trying to repeal.”

Common-core opponents, meanwhile, have pledged to continue the fight both in legislatures and in the public arena. And some activists believe the battle is a long-term one that ultimately involves many issues.

“You can blame it on rhetoric, you can blame it on misinformation, you can blame it on whatever you want to blame it on. But the bottom line is that people don’t like it,” said Louisiana Rep. Brett Geymann, a Republican who is supporting legislation that would repeal the standards in Louisiana this year.

The calendar for state legislatures is still relatively active—NCSL reported that only 13 states had or were due to adjourn their sessions for the year by mid-April. That situation makes it too early for supporters of the standards to declare them safe for 2015, said Michael Brickman, the national policy director for the Thomas B. Fordham Institute, a Washington think tank that supports the common core.

Still, he said that based on the failure of repeal efforts so far, even legislation that gets signed by governors might only tweak the standards around the edges. Some successful bills, he noted, might have both friends and foes of the common core declaring victory in certain states, a sign that those bills may do very little to actually thwart the standards.

“If victory is something that looks completely different than common core, I think some people are going to be disappointed,” Mr. Brickman said.

A Second Look

States also may be more inclined to take a second look at their standards than to get rid of what they have. The NCSL reported that about 80 bills have been filed in common-core states to have the standards (or aligned tests) reviewed; that contrasts with about 45 bills calling for repeal, roughly the same number as last year. Reviews of the standards that originated in legislation are already under way in Missouri and North Carolina.

“It would make sense that the number of bills and committees established to review the standards would increase, one, as a political strategy, and two, just to change the way states will adopt academic standards,” said Daniel Thatcher, a senior policy specialist with the NCSL, referring to such review bills.

In some states, up-or-down votes haven’t been necessary to scuttle repeal efforts. Legislators in Florida, Kentucky, Maryland, New Mexico, and Washington, where legislative sessions have either ended or are close to ending, have declined to act on repeal bills and essentially let them die on the vine.

This year’s most notable anti-common-core push may have occurred in Arizona, where the House of Representatives and then the state Senate education committee approved a repeal measure. There had been a relatively friendly political climate for the bill, given the election last year of state Superintendent of Public Instruction Diane Douglas, a Republican who built her candidacy on common-core opposition. Nonetheless, the Arizona Senate voted down the legislation, House Bill 2190, last month, following remarks by GOP Gov. Doug Ducey that a review of the standards—not a repeal—would be the right move for Arizona.

In West Virginia, the House of Representatives passed a repeal bill, but the state Senate altered it to institute only a review of the standards, and the bill died. Mr. Martirano, who said that support for the standards from the teachers’ union and the state school board was crucial to their survival, then initiated a common-core review primarily to ensure that when the standards come up again in the state’s 2016 session, the public feels more involved in the state’s use of the standards.

The Alabama and Colorado Senate education committees, on the other hand, approved bills earlier this month that would repeal the common core. Other states where common-core repeal bills are pending include Massachusetts, Michigan, New York, and Tennessee.

The Tennessee bill, which the state House of Representatives passed unanimously on April 20, doesn’t require an immediate revocation of the standards. The bill would create a new commission, with a majority of its members appointed by legislators and the rest by Gov. Bill Haslam, a Republican, tasked with recommending new standards to the state school board. The state board, in turn, could send back these recommendations to the commission for revisions, but couldn’t do so more than twice.

The bill also states, “Any standards adopted by the state board upon the recommendation of the commission shall be separate and distinct from the Common Core State Standards.” How various policymakers would define “separate and distinct” is open to interpretation.

Political Calculus

In Kansas, lawmakers have mounted repeal efforts in both 2014 and 2015. Last year, during budget negotiations, a common-core-repeal measure was tossed out. This year, the House education committee voted down a similar measure.

The resilience of common core in Kansas is due in part to pressure to keep the standards from a partnership of local business groups and local teachers, administrators, and school board members, who have invested time and resources in the standards, said Cheryl S. Williams, the executive director of the Learning First Alliance. The Alexandria, Va.-based coalition of education associations supports the standards, but has urged states to rethink the pace of implementation.

“I think in a lot of these states, you’ve got people doing the work and ignoring the political situation,” Ms. Williams said.

More broadly, the fate of repeal bills so far this year shows that many state legislators can and will distinguish between volatile, controversy-driven politics and what their various constituencies want, said Deven Carlson, an assistant professor of political science at the University of Oklahoma.

“There’s also on-the-ground realities that people have to take into account. It’s harder to report, it’s harder to observe, maybe. But those are the things that influence legislators’ decisions more so than national political rhetoric,” Mr. Carlson said.

Strategies for Pushback

Lawmakers eager to toss the standards overboard say they still have momentum, even as some might change their tactics.

Mr. Geymann, the Louisiana representative, said that his main goal was to get repeal legislation to a House of Representatives floor vote, where he said election-year pressure will help push many lawmakers to vote for repeal.

“It’s easy for the big business guys to control a committee. You only have to go get 19 people,” Mr. Geymann said. “It’s easier to do that than to hold the entire House floor.”

He also endorsed the move to keep repeal proposals out of the House education committee, which has so far rejected such bills, through any procedural trick necessary. Gov. Bobby Jindal, a Republican and vocal common-core opponent, also has announced his backing for repeal legislation. (Louisiana’s legislative session started April 13.)

Even if the new standards strongly resemble the common-core standards, Mr. Geymann said, if there’s a new adoption process, “At least everyone’s going to be held accountable for that.”

However, Mr. Geymann’s proposal to keep repeal legislation out of his chamber’s education committee was voted down on April 20.

For progressive opponents of the standards, the push against the common core involves long and patient organizing they say is not only growing, but involves resisting a broad suite of policies centered on how tests are used to evaluate students, teachers, and schools.

Anthony Cody, who runs the “Living in Dialogue” blog about education, argued that the true litmus test for such common-core opponents will be whether they can translate their opposition into not just opposing high-stakes testing associated with the standards, but reversing how classroom instruction and technology has changed under the common core. And he said that teacher and student opposition to the standards will likely prove more resilient than the current opposition being shown by many politicians.

“You have to look at the social movement that is opposing common core as primarily a real grassroots movement that is still just beginning,” Mr. Cody said.

That activism has helped push 23 states this year to consider some kind of legislation that would allow parents to opt their children out of standardized tests. These proposals constitute “the new issue that we haven’t seen until this year,” Mr. Thatcher of the NCSL said. One such opt-out bill passed the New Jersey Assembly last month and awaits action in the state Senate.

“I don’t think we’re going to have one year of disruption followed by stability,” Mr. Cody said, referring to activities like the opt-out movement. “I think we’re going to have ongoing disruption.”

However, none of this resistance to accountability and testing policies necessarily spells doom for the common core itself, Mr. Carlson argued. Unlike the controversy that preceded the 2010 passage of the federal Affordable Care Act, he noted, the backlash to the standards began in many places three, four, or five years after they were adopted, and after schools had spent millions of dollars implementing them.

“The status quo has a privileged position in American politics,” Mr. Carlson said.

A version of this article appeared in the April 22, 2015 edition of Education Week as Traction Limited in Rolling Back Common Core


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