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Commentary: Rotten to the (Common) Core

By William M. Christian
for Citizens Against Government Waste

WasteWatcher, September 2013

Starting in mid-August, children began returning to classrooms across the country.  The individuals who work in school districts have the most personal (and visceral) contact of any level of government, especially since parents entrust them with their progeny.  But this close relationship may be supplanted by mandates from on high (or wherever it is that education apparatchiks perch), where a handful of policy wonks (not Father) supposedly knows best.  If they have their way, these D.C. do-gooders will dictate the curricula for elementary schools in Elmira, junior highs in Joplin, and high schools in High Point.

In 2009, hoping to change the United States’ decline in comparative global performance on academic achievement tests, the National Governors Association (NGA), in collaboration with the Council of Chief State School Officers (CCSSO), hired David Coleman to write curriculum standards for literacy and mathematics.  The effort evolved into the Common Core State Standards Initiative (CCSSI), described by the NGA’s Center for Best Practices as “a state-led effort coordinated by the NGA Center and the [CCSSO],” with a more detailed description of the program on CCSSI’s website.

Coleman parlayed that experience into the presidency of the College Board in 2012.  The College Board administers college entrance and placement exams, including the SAT (formerly the Scholastic Aptitude Test, now the Scholastic Assessment Test), the Advanced Placement (AP) Program, the CLEP (College Level Examination Program) tests, and the PSAT/NMSQT (Preliminary SAT/National Merit Scholarship Qualifying Test).  Coleman’s career seems to have come full circle in a few short years, from establishing a would-be national K-12 curriculum to overseeing the entrance and advanced placement exams for those who will have just completed said curriculum.

The claim of Common Core being a “state-led effort” is somewhat misleading given the description of “Common Standards,” which state that “It should be clear to every student, parent, and teacher what the standards of success are in every school.”  That comment presumes that standards should be the same regardless of geography or other circumstances. 

Several experts in education policy have weighed in on Common Core.  Joy Pullmann, a research fellow at the Heartland Institute, penned the pamphlet, The Common Core:  A Bad Choice for America.  In the chapter entitled “High Costs During Tight Times,” she wrote that “No one really knows how much it will cost to implement Common Core.  Most states did not estimate costs before adopting it [and] the tests must be taken exclusively online, which is more expensive and troublesome than current test procedures, especially for rural and poorer schools. … The new tests will also cost far more to administer each year.  Georgia testing officials, for example, said previous tests cost taxpayers $5 per student per year, but Common Core tests would cost $22 per student annually, more than four times as much.”

Pullmann pointed out that nationwide cost estimates vary from $3 billion by program supporters to $16 billion by critics.  The latter includes the Pioneer Institute and AccountabilityWorks, which jointly produced the white paper, “National Cost of Aligning States and Localities to the Common Core Standards.”  AccountabilityWorks CEO Theodor Rebarber described Common Core in the following way in a telephone conversation with the author:  “If you believe that nationalizing K-12 curriculum/testing is not the federal role, the whole thing is a waste.”

Others who have weighed into the debate include Lindsey Burke, an education fellow at the Heritage Foundation.  In her July 4, 2013 blog post, she noted how costs were a key concern surrounding implementation of the curriculum.  Quoting the Tulsa World, Burke noted that Oklahoma State Superintendent of Public Instruction Janet Barresi was withdrawing that state from the online testing consortium due, in part, to “higher anticipated costs.”  Ironically, Oklahoma Governor Mary Fallin, who supported Barresi’s decision, recently took the helm as NGA chair.  In an earlier posting on May 17, 2013, Burke highlighted the action by Indiana Governor Mike Pence, who signed into law a “pause,” requiring (among other things) ”a fiscal impact statement on the cost of Common Core to taxpayers.”

In response to Common Core and prior efforts to nationalize school curriculum, on June 17, 2013, Rep. Scott Garrett (R-N.J.) re-introduced the Local Education Authority Returns Now (LEARN) Act, H.R. 2394.  Rep. Garrett noted in his press release that parents and local authorities should be in charge of education and it was time to end the federal government’s “invasion” of “the reserved power of the states to set their own education standards.”  He called for an end to the “federal mandates that go along with federal money” by ensuring that “accountability is transferred from bureaucrats in Washington, D.C. to the people that know the schools and students personally.”  The LEARN Act would give states the option to opt out of No Child Left Behind in exchange for a tax credit, which would keep the money in the state taxpayers rather than sending it to Washington.

The LEARN Act is much more representative of the country’s core principles and long-standing policies related to decentralized, locally-governed education policy.  After all, as CAGW President Tom Schatz is fond of pointing out, many generations of Americans were educated without a federal Department of Education, which has only been in existence for 36 years.  While Schatz does not condone all educational policies over the years, including of course segregation, those who had access to school seem to have been better educated and local school districts certainly had far more control over the curriculum.  Indeed, most contemporary adults, let along junior high school students, could not pass a 1912 test for eighth graders from the rural Bullitt County, Kentucky school district.

Rep. Garrett believes that his approach will help to “cultivate a truly competitive atmosphere where states are challenging each other to best educate our students…”  Common Core, on the other hand, is an ill-advised and costly experiment, with America’s schoolchildren as the lab rats. 

In accordance with Title 17 U.S.C. Section 107, any copyrighted work in this message is distributed under fair use without profit or payment for non-profit research and educational purposes only. [Ref. http://www.law.cornell.edu/uscode/17/107.shtml]

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