common core

Examining the Bookends: Public Support for Choice and the Common Core

The 2018 Education Next poll is upon us, probing the public’s feelings about lots of education issues, from grading public schools to thoughts on teacher pay. I’ll just highlight two things here, kind of the opposite ends of the educational freedom spectrum: school choice, and the federally coerced, national curriculum standards known as the Common Core.

School Choice

As we know about any polling, how a question is worded can have considerable bearing on the results it yields. That’s a primary reason to greet any poll with skepticism. Because the fine folks at Education Next are well aware of this, they asked different versions of several questions, including about choice. What do they reveal?

Charters—But Not Private Choice—Take A Spill

The annual Education Next gauge of public opinion on numerous education issues is out, and as always it offers lots to contemplate, including special questions this year on the “Trump effect.” I won’t hit everything, just what I see as the highlights.

School Choice

The poll’s headline grabber is a big drop in support for charter schools, public schools run by ostensibly private entities but subject to many public school controls, especially state standards and testing. When people with neutral opinions were removed, 52 percent of respondents approved of “formation” of charters—that word likely made some difference—down from a peak of 73 percent in 2012. With neutral answers included, only 39 percent of the general public supported charters.

The good news is that support for private school choice programs—superior to charters because they offer access to far wider options, including religious schools—saw upticks. Scholarship tax credits remain the choice champ, with support (absent neutral respondents) rising from 65 percent to 69 percent. With neutrals, support stood at 55 percent of the general public. For vouchers, a lot depends on question wording, but without a loaded emphasis on “government funds,” support (minus neutrals) stood at 55 percent, up from 50 percent the previous year. With neutrals, support was at 45 percent, with 37 percent opposing. Education savings accounts—basically, money parents can use not just for tuition, but other education expenses like tutoring or buying standalone courses—garnered only 37 support from the general public, but the concept is pretty new and people may just not have wrapped their heads around it yet.

Why the big drop in charter support but improved backing of private school choice? As always, wording, question order, and other artifacts of the poll itself matter, but assuming those aren’t the major causes of the results, perhaps the answer is that charters, as a compromise between empowering parents and maintaining government control, have traditionally tended to have the highest profile bipartisan support of the various choice mechanisms. As a result of Trump-driven polarization, perhaps they have also had the most visible schisms, maybe casting a more negative light on them. Or maybe people have started to perceive, as Education Secretary Betsy DeVos borrowed from Rick Hess to warn, charters are becoming “the Man” they were supposed to replace.

What, Me Worry…about the Secretary of Education?

As it is for all areas in which the federal government trods—which seems to be, essentially, all areas of everything—in education the big worry right now is who will be the next U.S. Secretary of Education. I worry about that, too, but much more for what the selection will signal about the incoming administration than what the eventual secretary might choose to do.

The secretary—whoever he or she is—will almost certainly take their orders from people above them. Sure, the secretary will likely provide a lot of education guidance and advice to the president, but they will not—or at least should not—be the ultimate decision maker. Former Obama education secretary Arne Duncan, for instance, presided over deplorable baskets full of stuff I didn’t like, but I’ve never seen any indication he’d gone rogue, driving policies his boss did not support.

Whether President-elect Trump chooses hard-charging—but Common Core supporting and school-choice doubting—Michelle Rhee, or Core-despising transition team member Williamson Evers, the primary concern should be what the selection indicates about the administration’s priorities, not what the ed sec might personally like. Were a Secretary Rhee inclined to incentivize states to keep Common Core, but her boss opposed that, Rhee might not energetically do what Trump wants, but it’s hard to imagine her driving an opposing policy.

What Trump’s First 100 Days Might Mean for Education Policy

President-Elect Donald Trump has released his plans for his first 100 days in office. After outlining proposals for term limits, a trade war, and mass deportations, the plan includes the following paragraph on education policy:

School Choice And Education Opportunity Act. Redirects education dollars to give parents the right to send their kid to the public, private, charter, magnet, religious or home school of their choice. Ends common core, brings education supervision to local communities. It expands vocational and technical education, and make 2 and 4-year college more affordable.

The details are far from clear, but it appears that his education policy will focus on three areas:

1. School choice

Trump has the right instinct on school choice, but if he is planning to promote a national voucher program, then he’s going about it the wrong way. He has previously pledged to dedicate $20 billion in federal funds to school choice policies, and stated that he would “give states the option to allow these funds to follow the student to the public or private school they attend” as well as using federal carrots to get states to expand choice policies even further. Expanding educational opportunity is admirable, but using the federal government to do so is misguided. As David Boaz explained more than a decade ago in the Cato Handbook for Congress, the case against federal involvement in education:

is not based simply on a commitment to the original Constitution, as important as that is. It also reflects an understanding of why the Founders were right to reserve most subjects to state, local, or private endeavor. The Founders feared the concentration of power. They believed that the best way to protect individual freedom and civil society was to limit and divide power. Thus it was much better to have decisions made independently by 13–or 50–states, each able to innovate and to observe and copy successful innovations in other states, than to have one decision made for the entire country. As the country gets bigger and more complex, and especially as government amasses more power, the advantages of decentralization and divided power become even greater.

A federal voucher program would very likely lead to increased federal regulation of private schools over time, especially after a new administration takes over that is less friendly to the concept of school choice. As we’ve seen in some states, misguided regulations can severely undermine the effectiveness of school choice and induce a stifling conformity among schools. Moreover, as I’ve explained previously, those regulations are harder to block or repeal at the federal level than at the state level and their negative effects would be far more widespread:

When a state adopts regulations that undermine its school choice program, it’s lamentable but at least the ill effects are localized. Other states are free to chart a different course. However, if the federal government regulates a national school choice program, there is no escape. Moreover, state governments are more responsive to citizens than the distant federal bureaucracy. Citizens have a better shot at blocking or reversing harmful regulations at the state and local level rather than the federal level.

That said, the Trump administration can promote school choice in more productive and constitutionally sound ways. The federal government does have constitutional authority in Washington, D.C., where it currently operates the Opportunity Scholarship Program (OSP). The OSP should be expanded into a universal ESA that empowers all D.C. families to spend the funds on a wide variety of educational expenses in addition to private school tuition, including tutors, textbooks, online courses, curricular materials, and more, as well as save unused funds for later expenses, such as college. The Trump administration should explore similar options in areas where the federal government has jurisdiction, such as on Native American lands and military bases.

Common Core: Election Bellwether, and What Trump May Do in Education

If you work in education policy, you maybe should have seen Donald Trump’s monumental upset coming. I didn’t, and I would guess most other wonks didn’t either. But we all saw populist frustration boil over with the federally coerced Common Core national curriculum standards. Average Americans rejected the Core over the paternalistic, “you just don’t realize this is good for you” objections of establishment types on both the left and right, just as seemed to happen with Trump’s campaign that defied establishment predictions—and disbelief—almost from day one.

Of course, popular rejection of the Core does not capture nearly all that seems to have driven Trump’s support—immigration, dwindling manufacturing jobs, plain old fear—but it does capture a seeming disdain for elites.

What is this likely to translate into in education policy, especially with a Republican controlled Congress?

Let’s start with the Core. Candidate Trump, without specifics, indicated on the campaign trail that he would get rid of it, seeing it as an unacceptable federal intrusion. And it was federally coerced. The problem is that the main levers of coercion—the Race to the Top contest and waivers out of the No Child Left Behind Act—are gone. Race to the Top is over, and No Child has been replaced by the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA). Unless Trump tries to coerce states to dump the Core—make receipt of funds or regulatory relief dependent on ditching it—he can’t end the Core.

A Common Core Buyer’s Too Late Remorse

E.D. Hirsch—author of the lightning rod Cultural Literacy: What Every American Needs to Know, and a tireless advocate of content-heavy education—has just spoken truth about the Common Core. An Education Week article heralding his latest book reports that:

He calls the reading standards “empty” and “deeply flawed” because they teach all-purpose reading-comprehension strategies rather than facts and information. An entire chapter of his new book is devoted to what he refers to as “the tribulations of the common core.”

“The people who developed the common core had a choice. Either [the standards] were going to be educationally correct or they were going to be politically viable,” he said. “They chose the second.” Forty-six states agreed to adopt the standards right away, which he argues “could only be accomplished if you didn’t specify the content of the curriculum.”

The Core is indeed very light on content in English language arts, Hirsch’s primary concern. But it hasn’t changed between 2010 and today, yet Hirsch endorsed it—emphatically!—in 2013.

As I have pointed out, Hirsch’s endorsement is one of many pieces of Core support that have sewn major confusion about the Core, befuddlement that supporters have loved to pin on opponents. But the reality is that Core supporters, seemingly obsessed with getting standards nationalized, have tried to make the Core sound like all things to all people: national and comprehensive, locally controlled and minimalist. Couple that with federal coercion, and the Core has thrown schools nationwide into utterly avoidable disarray.

But there is a deeper reality illustrated here: It is very difficult, short of a dictatorship, to impose content both deep and broad on diverse people. Why? Because diverse people will not agree on what that content should be. Just evolution, or also intelligent design? The Bible, or I Am Jazz? Ethnic studies, or commonality? And the list goes on…and on. This is precisely why for the Core to be “politically viable” it had to be largely bereft of what Hirsch has spent decades crusading for: rich content.

If you want deep, robust content, the way to get it is the opposite of nationalization: educational freedom.

The Public Speaks on Curriculum Standards: “Meh”

Back-to-school season is also education survey time—Jason Bedrick and I examined the Education Next poll last week—and today we get the latest Phi Delta Kappa poll. For decades the PDK survey was done in conjunction with Gallup but is not this year. It also dropped questions specifically about such hot-button topics as vouchers and the Common Core. Maybe avoiding specific mention of the latter explains an interesting finding: the public’s response to curriculum standards is quite, well, blah.

The pollsters asked several questions about standards—especially an un-specified “new set of educational standards”—and inquired what parents thought of their effects.

First, when members of the public were asked if they thought the standards in their local public schools addressed “the things students need to succeed in their adult lives,” 27 percent answered that they addressed them “extremely” or “very” well, and 30 percent said “not so” or “not at all” well. 40 percent gave the middling “somewhat” answer. Ho-hum.

New Math: Anti-Common Core = Anti-Hispanic?

In an act of extreme tangent tying, former New Mexico governor Bill Richardson just penned an op-ed linking Donald Trump’s wall-building immigration stance to his attacks on the Common Core national curriculum standards. The message Richardson may be trying to send: bigots don’t want Hispanics in the country, or able to access “high academic standards” when they’re here.

Newest Test Scores are Bad News for Centralized Education, Common Core

This morning I read an op-ed by Douglas Holtz-Eakin tackling the chasm between what it takes to enroll in college and how ready for college students actually are. It is a yawning gap, and Holtz-Eakin rightly laments it. But then he pulls the ol’, “Common Core is a high standard,” and suggests that it will bridge the college prep divide. He even writes that the Core has been “shown” to be “effective.”  

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