Tag: race to the top

Common Core End Game

For far too long a big part of the Common Core debate has been about establishing simple fact: the federal government provided serious coercion to get states to adopt the Core, and the Core’s creators asked for such arm twisting. Indeed, just yesterday, Andy Smarick at the Core-supporting Thomas B. Fordham Institute lamented that the write-up for President Obama’s education budget proposal gives the administration credit for widespread Core adoption. Wrote Smarick: “The anti-Common Core forces will likely use this language as evidence that Common Core was federally driven.” Of course it was federally driven, by Race to the Top (RTTT) and No Child Left Behind (NCLB) waivers! But the budget proposal tells us far more than that.

The big story in the proposal is – or, at least, should be – that the president almost certainly wants to make the Core permanent by attaching annual federal funding to its use, and to performance on related tests. Just as the administration called for in its 2010 NCLB reauthorization proposal, POTUS wants to employ more than a one-time program, or temporary waivers, to impose “college and career-ready standards,” which–thanks to RTTT and waivers–is essentially synonymous with Common Core. In fact, President Obama proposes changing Title I of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act – of which NCLB is just the most recent reauthorization – to a program called “College- and Career-Ready Students,” with an annual appropriation of over $14 billion. 

This was utterly predictable. Core opponents, who are so often smeared as conspiracy mongers, know full well both what the President has proposed in the past, and how government accumulates power over time. RTTT was the foot in the door, and once most states were using the same standards and tests, there was little question what Washington would eventually say: “Since everyone’s using the same tests and standards anyway, might as well make federal policy based on that.” Perhaps given the scorching heat the Common Core has been taking lately, most people didn’t expect the administration to make the move so soon, but rational people knew it would eventually come. Indeed, the “tripod” of standards, tests, and accountability that many Core-ites believe is needed to make “standards-based reform” function, logically demands federal control. After all, a major lesson of NCLB is that states will not hold themselves accountable for setting and clearing high academic bars.

While it’s a crucial fact, the full story on the Common Core isn’t that the feds coerced adoption. It is that the end game is almost certainly complete federal control by connecting national standards and tests to annual federal funding. And that, it is now quite clear, is no conspiracy theory.  

Core-ites Awaken

How do you know the Common Core is in trouble? You could religiously follow the news in New York, Indiana, Florida, and many other states. Or you could read just two new op-eds by leading Core supporters who fear their side is getting bludgeoned. Not bludgeoned in the way they describe – an education hero assaulted by kooks and charlatans – but clobbered nonetheless. As Delaware governor Jack Markell (D) and former Georgia governor Sonny Perdue (R) put it:

This is a pivotal moment for the Common Core State Standards.

Although 45 states quickly adopted the higher standards created by governors and state education officials, the effort has begun to lose momentum. Some are now wavering in the face of misinformation campaigns from people who misrepresent the initiative as a federal program and from those who support the status quo. Legislation has been introduced in at least 12 states to prohibit implementation and states have dropped out of the two major Common Core assessment consortia.

Sadly, Markell and Perdue’s piece, and one from major Core bankroller Bill Gates, illustrate why the Core may well be losing: Defenders offer cheap characterizations of their opponents while ignoring basic, crucial facts. Meanwhile, the public is learning the truth.

Both pieces employ the most hulking pro-Core deception, completely ignoring the massive hand of Washington behind state Core adoption. For all intents and purposes, adoption was compulsory to compete in the $4.35-billion Race to the Top program, a part of the “stimulus” at the nadir of the Great Recession. While some states may have eventually adopted the Core on their own, Race to the Top was precisely why so many “quickly adopted the higher standards.” Indeed, many governors and state school chiefs promised to adopt the Core before it was even finished. Why? They had to for Race to the Top! And let’s not pretend federal coercion wasn’t intended all along: In 2008 the Core-creating Council of Chief State School Officers and National Governors Association published a report calling for just such federal pressure.

Who’s Misinforming, Exactly?

At this point I don’t want to write another word about Common Core supporters’ cheap rhetorical tactics. Unfortunately, a new op-ed by Chester Finn and Michael Petrilli of the Thomas B. Fordham Foundation demands it. And this after AEI’s Rick Hess took Core defenders to task for their excesses, then kindly offered some helpful advice on how to at least have an honest conversation. Why didn’t the Fordham folks listen to Rick? Coulda saved me a lot of trouble.

Anyway, four things particularly stick out in Fordham’s piece, published in the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, though many others are dubious:

    1. The piece starts off by, essentially, smearing all opponents of the Core as carpet-bagging liars. The very first line reads: “For some time now, outside groups have been vigorously spreading misinformation about the Common Core state standards.” The goal here is, presumably, to declare opponents devious right off the bat, and compound that by asserting that they are all icky non-Wisconsinites. Never mind that Finn and Petrilli, to my knowledge, aren’t from the Badger State, and have definitely lived in the Washington, DC, area for years.
    2. A major complaint of Core supporters is that critics blame things like data-mining and curricular control on the Core which aren’t, technically, in it. They are intimately connected through Race to the Top and No Child Left Behind waivers, which intentionally place the Core in broader pushes for evaluation, data collection, etc., but no, they aren’t actually in the Core. It is apparently fine, though, to proclaim that the Core by itself “demands accountability, high standards and testing,” as Finn and Petrilli do. The difference, of course, is that Finn and Petrilli favor the Common Core, and the Common Core is great!
    3. Finn and Petrilli offer a tiny, non-concession concession to people who have decried the massive federal coercion that drove Core adoption, noting that “many conservatives are justifiably angry about the inappropriate role the Obama administration has played in promoting and taking credit for these standards.” But the thing is, Obama didn’t just promote and take credit for the Common Core. He implemented concrete federal policies that essentially told states that if they didn’t adopt Common Core they couldn’t get part of a $4.35 billion pot of money, and it would be harder to get out of the absurd demands of No Child Left Behind. If Finn and Petrilli want to be forthright, they need to actually write the words “Race to the Top” and “waivers,” and explain exactly what they did. But they don’t even mention them!
    4. Finally, it is simply wrong to suggest that the Obama administration went all lone wolf on Core supporters. Why? Because, as I have discussed repeatedly, the report Benchmarking for Success, from the groups that created Common Core, came out in 2008 – before there was an Obama administration – and called on the federal government to “incentivize” adoption of common standards. In other words, they wanted the Feds to twist arms all along!

I hate it when Common Core supporters – from Wisconsin, DC, or anywhere else – misinform the public. Especially when their first move is to drop the deceiver card on their opponents.

Americans Deserve to See Federal Role in National Tests

The drive to impose uniform curriculum standards on the nation’s schools has been one of stealth, and at times, seemingly intentional deception. Most egregious has been the mantra of Common Core proponents that the effort has been “state-led and voluntary,” despite Washington coercing state adoption through the Race to the Top program and No Child Left Behind waivers; standards creators encouraging just such federal “incentives”; and Washington selecting and funding the two groups creating the tests to go with the standards. And now, more than a week after the U.S. Department of Education announced the creation of a “technical review” panel to assess the assessments, it seems increasingly certain that the panel’s work will be done behind closed doors.

At least one report asserts that the meetings will, indeed, be closed to the public. Education Week’s initial reporton the review says that the panel’s “feedback” will eventually be made public in “a yet-to-be-determined form,” but says nothing about the meetings themselves. Cato Center for Educational Freedom efforts to confirm the meeting status with the U.S. Department of Education have come up empty, with calls over two days either resulting in no information or simply going unanswered. At best, then, the meetings will be open to the public but ED has a terrible communications system. At worst the panel’s work will be completely under wraps save for some kind of final – and perhaps heavily filtered – report.

Either scenario is unacceptable. These tests are being funded by taxpayers, and the goal is ultimately to use them to assess the math and reading mastery of the nation’s children. Funders and families deserve to see what this review panel is doing, and shouldn’t have to pull telecommunications teeth to find out if and how they can do that. In addition, Common Core supporters have taken to painting opponents as paranoid, while at the same time denying or downplaying the federal government’s major role in pushing the Common Core. It would not be surprising were they to use the same tactics should Common Core opponents raise questions about the degree to which the Feds are influencing what is on the tests. The panel may well leave test content alone, but given the track record so far it is rational to fear the worst, especially when it seems the review panel is purposely being kept out of real sunlight.

Americans deserve to see all that the Feds are doing with this supposedly non-federal effort.

Bad Stuff in Obama Ed Budget

Details are still emerging about the Obama Administration’s 2014 education budget proposal, but from the overview there seems to be a lot of bad stuff. Here are the hi – or low – lights, and links to some important context:

  • Increase Department of Education spending to $71.2 billion, up 4.6 percent from 2012 enacted level: This is neither constitutional nor effective.
  • “Invests” in preschool: Head Start, Early Head Start, and state programs either are shown to fail, or have little to no good evidence supporting them.
  • $12.5 billion in mandatory funds to “prevent additional teacher layoffs and hire teachers”: We’ve been getting fat on staff – including teachers – for decades, and it hasn’t helped.
  • $1.3 billion for 21st Century Community Learning Centers: Federal studies have found these have negative effects.
  • Race to the Top for higher education: So far, RTTT has been big on promises, small on outcomes, and huge on coercion to adopt national curriculum standards.
  • $260 million to scale up higher education innovation: MOOCS and other innovations have been developing pretty well without federal “help.”
  • Maintain “strong” Pell Grant program: Pell is part of the tuition hyperinflation problem, not the solution.

There will no doubt be more-detailed analyses of specific education proposals to come. Stay tuned!

Not Quite Blowing Up the Death Star, but…

For two years the national curriculum blitz has been rolling through states unabated, with “Common Core” standards now fully adopted in all but five states and development of national tests continuing. Of course all of this has been done with heavy federal air support, including making adoption of Common Core crucial for states wanting to access Race to the Top funds, and Washington selecting and funding the national test developers.

Last week, however, national curriculum forces suffered a small but notable setback, with the Utah State Board of Education withdrawing the Beehive State from the Smarter Balanced Assessment Consortium, one of the two consortia developing tests to accompany the Common Core. In terms of its on-the-ground impact, it’s not huge —Utah will still have the Common Core standards—but symbolically it could be big, showing that states can undo decisions they may have made in haste, or in pursuit of federal money or favors. And to be honest, it is more official push back than I expected.

That said, the crucial point will still be when the Elementary and Secondary Education Act—AKA, No Child Left Behind—comes before Congress for reauthorization. That is when it will be decided whether adopting the Common Core will be necessary for states to get huge amounts of annual federal funding, and whether scores on the national tests will determine whether districts, schools, or children get rewarded or punished. If those measures are included—especially the high-stakes testing—then it is game over: we will have an indisputably federal curriculum, and no state will dare resist it. They simply won’t be willing to jeopardize billions of annual dollars.

Until then, national standards opponents can take heart in Utah’s small act of defiance.

Education Silver Lining in ObamaCare Decision?

After having my brain twisted into a pretzel reading yesterday’s ObamaCare decision, I was as disturbed as anyone. I mean, I had spent most of my life thinking I knew the difference between a “penalty” and a “tax,” and it turns out I was just fooling myself. Not to get too existentialist about this, but it has really made me question whether anything I think is real truly is.

Anyway, I eventually discovered what might be a small silver lining in the ruling, at least for education: the Medicaid section might have begun to place some, very nebulous, boundary on the ability of the federal government to bribe states into adopting federal rules. That has been the primary mode by which Washington has taken over elementary and secondary education—think No Child Left Behind, Race to the Top, No Child Left Behind waivers—and this ruling says there is a constitutional limit to what the federal government can do to coerce state action though spending.

Essentially, whether or not Spending Clause coercion is unconstitutional depends on whether it constitutes “undue influence” on states. For Chief Justice Roberts, that line was crossed when the Feds changed the rules for Medicaid and threatened states with the loss of all their funding if they didn’t follow the new strictures.

Obviously this doesn’t give us anything approaching a bright line on the limits to Spending Clause use. Such a limit surely can be found—no spending is allowed not connected to one of the specific, enumerated powers given to Washington by the Constitution—but Roberts writes that “Congress can use [Spending Clause] power to implement federal policy it could not impose directly under the enumerated powers.”

So why bother with enumerated powers? Got me…

Addressing education directly, the conservative justices noted that compared to Medicaid, federal education funding is a relatively small share of total spending, casting doubt on how applicable the ruling might be. In contrast, it was very gratifying to see those justices make a point I’ve made repeatedly, especially when discussing the absurd assertion that adopting national curriculum standards has been voluntary. Even if adoption were technically voluntary for states, taxpayers in those states have had no choice about paying the taxes that fund multi-billion-dollar carrots such as Race to the Top. Indeed, the conservatives write, were a state to fail to meet conditions attached to Spending Clause bucks, not only would it lose access to federal funds, it would likely have to raise its own taxes to make up for the shortfall, taxes that “would come on top of federal taxes already paid by the State’s citizens” for the spurned federal program.

The teensy bit of good news out of this ruling is that there is some limit to how coercive Washington can be under the Spending Clause, the clause that has been the linchpin of federal education policy. Unfortunately, the new problem is that were the Spending Clause avenue eventually cut off, Congress could probably just threaten the residents of recalcitrant states with some sort of financial penalty…er…tax. I mean, penalty…

Oh, my existentialist crisis!

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