This is the seventh in a series about the report released by American Principles in Action, ThePulse2016, and Cornerstone Policy Research Action. Permission has been granted for text from Common Core Report: Grading the 2016 GOP Candidates to be published on Stop Common Core in Washington State. The Executive Summary from the report was published in the first post. The second post in the series was The Need for a Scorecard. The third post in the series was The Public-Private Partnership: How Private Entities Developed the Common Core and Enlisted the Federal Government to Drive It Into the States. The fourth post in the series was Common Core System. The fifth post in the series was The Common Core Standards Lock Children Into an Inferior Education. The sixth post in the series was The Common Core Pushback. Here is the sixth section.
6. Making Big Ideas Into Small Ideas: The GOP Tendency
Common Core has become a flash point in the public square across the political spectrum. Its adversarial divide is elitists (those who believe that a people’s lives should be managed) versus populists (those who believe that people should govern their own lives) rather than along party lines. Republican and Democratic activists alike recognize that Common Core is the result of a systemic breakdown in governance.
Common Core activists understand how Common Core won an immediate, albeit a vague and pre-development, commitment from 48 governors and subsequently swept, almost in unison, into 45 states. Activists have fought against the federal, state, and local government. Many activists have reviewed thousands of pages of government statutes, regulations, grant documents, studies, and meeting minutes and have met with their governor, executive agencies, and federal and state legislators. They understand that the adoption of Common Core so quickly by so many states came about because elitist private entities prevailed on the federal executive branch to push the standards into the states through grants and regulatory threats disguised as relief from burdensome regulations.
Activists understand the crucial breakdown: the state education executive bodies (departments of education and state boards of education) pine for the conditional federal dollar and, in addition, many, perhaps most, of their jobs exist to administer that dollar. As a result, the state education apparatus turns toward the federal executive and away from the state’s legislature and citizens. That near exclusion of the citizen paves the way for the series of education fads and poor products like the Common Core. In state after state, on matter after matter, the controlling policy is simply, “What do the Feds want?”
Courageous public officials have made this observation. The experiences of Andrea Neal provide a case in point. Neal is an English language arts teacher and journalist who served on the Indiana State Board of Education during the implementation of a state law requiring the adoption of new, high-quality standards to replace Common Core. Regarding the state education apparatus’s efforts pursuant to that law, Neal observed:
The ‘new’ academic standards are at minimum 85 percent Common Core or Common Core paraphrased. The feds made clear they’d grant no waivers to states that didn’t have ‘college and career ready’ standards, assessments tied to those standards and teacher evaluations based significantly on test scores. The safest bet — as states quickly learned — was to adopt standards that looked a lot like Common Core. Hoosiers don’t determine education policy in Indiana. The federal government does.
In that vein, the Texas Commissioner of Education in 2010, Robert Scott, and the governor, Rick Perry, were particularly attuned to the federal influence on education policy. In rejecting, the Race to the Top application Gov. Perry stated:
[W]e would be foolish and irresponsible to place our children’s future in the hands of unelected bureaucrats and special interest groups thousands of miles away in Washington, virtually eliminating parents’ participation in their children’s education. If Washington were truly concerned about funding education with solutions that match local challenges, they would make the money available to states with no strings attached.75
Some have suggested that, whether the funding or decision-making comes from the federal government or a state government, it should not matter in terms of the quality of the consequent policy or product. After all, aren’t both the federal and state governments constructed along the same lines with a legislative, executive, and judicial branch?
As the activist knows well, the current interplay between the federal executive and the state executive turns the constitutional structure on its head. It presently works contrary to its purposes of securing “the freedom of the individual”76 and of:
[allowing] local policies “more sensitive to the diverse needs of a heterogeneous society,” permits “innovation and experimentation,” [enabling] greater citizen “involvement in democratic processes,” and [making] government “more responsive by putting the States in competition for a mobile citizenry.”77
The current practices subvert that apparatus. Tying conditions or policies to funding deceives citizens and legislators. Where did the policy originate? Is it the view of the state executive that it is the best policy possible? Was that view the result of a prudential evidence-based approach? Who is driving the policy? Does the state executive believe it is being implemented in the best way possible? The answers to those questions are, at best, unknowable under current federal practices.78
We note that, on the continuum from legally mandated to politically coerced to induced through conditional grants, it is likely grant inducement that causes the most harm to the constitutional structure. It creates the most ambiguities, or confusion, to the citizen as to why a state or locality has adopted a certain policy or product.
In rejecting the Race to Top grants, Governor Perry touched on this problem:
Through Race to the Top funding, the U.S. Department of Education seems to be coercing states like Texas to suddenly abandon their own locally established curriculum standards in favor of adopting national standards spearheaded by organizations in Washington, D.C.79
As with other citizens, legislators who delve into the process understand the nexus between the perverted process and the poor quality of policy. As stated by Texas state Rep. Rob Eissler, Public Education Committee chairman in 2010, “[T]he two things I worry about in education are fads and feds, and this combines both.”80
Amy Edmonds, education policy analyst, Wyoming Liberty Group and former Wyoming state legislator, elaborates on that sentiment:
We continue to give lip service to the fairytale that states have control over the development and delivery of education in public schools. This is simply not true. The federal government has effectively created a system of “incentives” using the power of the federal purse to hammer states into submission. Wyoming, like most states, does not develop education policy that makes sense for our rural Western public schools, we develop policy based on what the federal government wants us to do. But we slap the word Wyoming in front of the legislation and say it’s state based. It’s utter lunacy.
Similarly, Del. Jim Butler of West Virginia observes:
As a state legislator I have been at first surprised and now very disappointed that the West Virginia State School Board and the State Department of Education officials have been so willing to mislead the public, and legislators, in order to prop up deeply flawed policies that are potentially harmful to West Virginia children only because they are promoted by lobbyists and federal agencies.
At the federal level Congress has the talking points on education and local control down pat, unfortunately it appears that they are only cementing into place federal authority at the expense of parents and children.
And Indiana state Sen. Scott Schneider:
According to our United States Constitution education is the sole responsibility of the states, to be carried out according to each state’s constitution. The Federal government, through the Federal Department of Education, has its tentacles entangled in just about every aspect of education at the state level. Through the threat of reduced or lost funding, the feds dictate policy directly and indirectly to states’ boards of education and departments of education, rendering the voice of the people – through their legislatures – mute. To truly improve education in this country, the Federal government must get out of the business of education completely, and return this function to the states. It is time to abolish the Federal department of education.
The activist –be she a parent, teacher, or some other citizen– knows this all too well. She has gleaned it from the volumes of papers she has read, from her entreaties to legislators, governors, and state board members, and from her networking with other activists from across the country.
With regard to the GOP presidential contest, almost all candidates have now voiced some sort of objection to the Common Core. However, as is the tendency in the party on issue after issue, rather than fighting on grand, timeless ideas or principles, many GOP politicians have responded to this issue by latching onto an insipid, flavorless part. They have made a big idea into a small idea. They argue that the standards were a good idea but that the federal government “hi-jacked” them (not true); that the standards were good (not true) but that the implementation is poor; or that government did not reach out to parents and get them on board. Or, some go along with a fallacy that standards re-branded and accepted by the state educational structure have replaced the Common Core with something different (in truth such standards are aligned with the Common Core such that children are taught with Common Core-aligned textbooks and subjected to Common Core- aligned standardized tests).
Making the big idea into a small idea gives short shrift to the parents fighting for their rights and for their children’s future and to the activists who have devoted so much of their energy and time. Such tactics fail to address the root problem, thus opening the door for the same or another fad to be pushed right back into the schools. They also give the impression that the candidate (or the officeholder or the party) lacks courage.
We looked positively on those candidates who opposed the recent NCLB reauthorization legislation as inadequate in regard to protecting parental rights and state and local decision-making, especially in the context of substantial GOP majorities in Congress.81 We note that three GOP candidates who are senators voted against the legislation, whereas Sen. Graham (SC) did not cast a vote.82
Sen. Lamar Alexander (R-TN), the sponsor of the senate NCLB bill, S. 1177 (also known as the Every Child Achieves Act), contends that the bill is conservative due to its prohibitions on USED; due to its elimination of the NCLB dictate that a state show Annual Yearly Progress toward 100% student proficiency; and due to purported flexibility that the government is giving the states with regard to matters such as state accountability systems.83 We do not discount the bi-partisan support the bill enjoys in the Senate: for the first time, there is bi-partisan consensus that the federal education footprint should be reduced. This is even more remarkable because Congress has generally lost its big battles with this President. However, S. 1177’s federal restrictions are illusory. For example, its vaunted prohibitions on the federal government largely replicate the existing ineffective prohibitions contained in NCLB (like the current prohibitions, they lack an enforcement mechanism for the states); it keeps the ineffective, expensive, and overbearing federal testing mandates; and it denigrates student privacy.84 A NCLB reauthorization put forward by the GOP-controlled Congress should have done much more to return power to the states and the people.85 It should have, for example, eliminated the federal testing mandates and the requirement that states submit a state education plan for USED approval.
At the heart of the report card is a parent and citizen movement to take control over education decision-making versus the GOP tendency to make big issues into small issues. Activists recognize a strong connection between, on one hand, the poor quality of the Common Core and the intrusive data collection and, on the other hand, the federal government’s dominant role in these policies. They understand that the failure to address the big idea, restoring federalism (returning power to the states), will negate the success of any small ideas suggested to tweak failed policies.
Because of the duplicity with which the Common Core was introduced and because the pushback movement is relatively recent, we view through a charitable lens candidates who initially supported the Common Core system but then changed their minds. At the same time, though, we must acknowledge those who opposed the Common Core from the beginning.
The footnotes are available in the full report. You can download the full report by clicking on Common Core Report: Grading the 2016 GOP Candidates.