Getting the Common Core (and Federal) Facts Right

We’ve been fighting over the Common Core national curriculum standards for years now, and at this point the people who “fact check” ought to know the facts. Also, at this point, I should be doing many other things than laying out basic truths about the Core. Yet here I am, about to fact-check fact-checking by The Seventy Four, an education news and analysis site set up by former television journalist Campbell Brown. Thankfully, I am not alone in having to repeat this Sisyphean chore; AEI’s Rick Hess did the same thing addressing Washington Post fact-checkers yesterday.

Because I have done this so many times before – what follows are relatively quick, clarifications beneath the “facts” the “fact check” missed.

FACT: It was the states — more specifically the Council of Chief State School Officers and National Governors Association — that developed the standards. During the Obama administration, the Education Department has played no specific role in the implementation of those standards, and the classroom curriculum used to meet the broad goals set out in Common Core is created by districts and states, as it always has been. Further, states have made tweaks to the Common Core standards since their initial adoption and, in some cases, have decided to drop the standards entirely.

  • The Council of Chief State School Officers (CCSSO) and National Governors Association (NGA) are not states. They are, essentially, professional associations of governors and state superintendents. And they are definitely not legislatures, which much more than governors represent “the people” of their states. So no, it was not “states” that developed the standards.
  • The CCSSO and NGA explicitly called for federal influence to move states onto common, internationally benchmarked standards – what the Core is supposed to be – writing in the 2008 report Benchmarking for Success that the role of the federal government is to offer “incentives” to get states to use common standards, including offering funding and regulatory relief. See page 7 of the report, and note that the same information was once on the Common Core website but has since been removed.
  • The Common Core was dropped into a federally dictated system under the No Child Left Behind Act that required accountability based on state standards and tests, so Washington did have a role in overseeing “implementation” of the standards. And since what is tested for accountability purposes is what is supposed to get taught, it is very deceptive to say, simply, curriculum “is created by districts and states.” The curricula states create is supposed to be heavily influenced by Core, and especially the math section pushes specific content. Indeed, the Core calls specifically for instructional “shifts.” Oh, and the federal government selected and funded two consortia of states to create national tests – the Partnership for the Assessment of Readiness for College and Career (PARCC) and the Smarter-Balanced Assessment Consortium (SBAC) – which the Department of Education, to at least some extent, oversaw.
FACT: States competing for Race to the Top funds in 2009 got more points on their application for the adoption of “internationally benchmarked standards and assessments that prepare students for success in college and the workplace.” Adopting those standards won a state 40 points out of 500 possible, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures.

Congress has not funded Race to the Top grants in the annual appropriations process for several years, and several states – notably Oklahoma and Indiana – have dropped the Common Core.

  • The $4.35 billion Race to the Top was the primary lever to coerce states into Core adoption, and it did far more than give 40 out of 500 points for adopting any ol’ “internationally benchmarked standards and assessments.” It came as close to saying Common Core as possible without actually saying Common Core, which, by the way, reporting by the Washington Post’s Lyndsey Layton suggested the Obama administration wanted to do, but was asked not to because the optics would be bad. So instead the regulations said that to get maximum points states would have to adopt standards common to a “majority” of states – a definition only met by the Core – and went to pains to make sure the adoption timelines suited the Core. Read all about it here, with special attention to page 59689. And note that maximum points were 50 for adopting standards and aligned tests, and 70 for doing that and supporting transition to the new standards and tests.
  • It is true that the Race to the Top pushing Core implementation only happened once – though in multiple phases – but the Obama administration later cemented it by only giving two choices of standards to get waivers out of the most dreaded parts of the No Child Left behind Act: either have standards common to a “significant number of states,” or a public university system certify a state’s own standards as “college- and career-ready.” And all of this happened after states had promised to use the Core in Race to the Top; it would have been tough for state officials to suddenly say they would not use the Core because, well, they only promised to do so for the federal money.

FACT: Federal law already prohibits the government from forcing states to adopt Common Core. 

The Every Student Succeeds Act, which Obama signed into law in December, includes 13 references to the Common Core – all limitations on federal power to meddle in curriculum.

Specifically from the law: “No officer or employee of the federal government shall, through grants, contracts, or other cooperative agreements, mandate, direct, or control a state, local education agency, or school’s specific instructional content, academic standards and assessments, curricula, or other program of instruction…including any requirement, direction, or mandate to adopt the Common Core State Standards.”

To the contrary, ESSA specifically protects states’ rights to “enter into a voluntary partnership with another state to develop and implement” challenging academic standards.

  • This “fact” was invoked to counter promises by Republican presidential candidates to end Common Core if elected. And it is correct that the ESSA singles out the Core as something that cannot be specifically coerced. But, of course, that has already essentially happened, and it is worth noting that federal law has had paper prohibitions against federal influence over curriculum for decades. Precious good they did, not that forcing states to dump the Core would be any more constitutional than the original coercion.

FACT: The federal government already has a limited role in K-12 education. Particularly in the wake of the passage of the Every Student Succeeds Act, the primary federal roles are providing supplemental funds for the education of children in poverty (the Title I program), setting standards for the education of children with disabilities and helping fund those services (the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act), and ensuring children don’t go hungry (the school lunch program, which is run through the Agriculture Department.)

The monetary role is small, too. According to federal data, between 1980 and 2011, between 7 and 13 percent of total annual education funding came from federal sources. And only about half of that funding in 2011 came from the Education Department. Another quarter of that funding came from the Department of Agriculture for the school lunch program. The Defense Department (junior reserve officers’ training program and their own school system for students of military members), Health and Human Services (Head Start pre-school) and about a half-dozen other departments for smaller programs made up the rest. 

  • The federal government has taken on a largely unlimited role in education – everything from funding to coercing curriculum standards – which is why we saw anger on both the left and right spur passage of the ESSA. But it is not clear that the ESSA reduces the federal role to simply providing supplemental funds, standards for children with disabilities, and stopping hunger. The new law requires that states send standard, testing, and accountability plans to Washington for approval; requires uniform statewide testing; and demands interventions in the worst performing schools, among other things. And this is before the regulations – which some groups are pushing to be very prescriptive – have been written.
  • Oh, the school lunch program? It is also about pushing what Washington deems to be proper nutrition and balanced diets on schools, not just “ensuring children don’t go hungry.”
  • It is true that the monetary role as a percentage of total spending is kind of small, but roughly ten percent of funding isn’t nothing, and federal funding was in much demand during the nadir of the Great Recession, when Race to the Top was in effect. And it is very hard to be a politician in any state and say, “I’m going to turn down this $100 million, or that $1 billion, because it’s not that big a percentage of our funding.” This is something of which federal politicians are well aware, and spending roughly $80 billion on K-12 is not chump change, even by federal standards.

FACT: Abolishing the federal Education Department would also wipe out the Office of Innovation and Improvement, which oversees the very initiatives Cruz wants to promote: federal efforts to spur more charter schools and magnet schools; the DC Opportunity Scholarship Program, the only federal school voucher program; and the Office of Non-Public Education.

  • Ironically, after downplaying federal influence in education, The Seventy Four tweaks Presidential candidate Ted Cruz for saying he wants to get rid of the U.S. Department of Education and expand school choice. So while suggesting overall federal spending is kind of puny at 7 to 13 percent of the total, apparently Department of Education spending on charter school grants is too big to kill. But it is only $333 million dollars, or about $147 per charter student. That is a princely 1 percent of what the U.S. spends, on average, per K-12 student. Meanwhile, the DC voucher program is constantly under threat of destruction. And none of these justify keeping the Department which does way, WAY more than these few things.

So there it is, as fast as I could get it out. No doubt I missed some things. But hopefully this is enough for the fact checkers to get things closer to accurate next time. And now, on to other things…