Doug Lasken / commentaryOctober 24, 2012Doug LaskenMany education activists were high-fiving in September when Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney finally attacked President Obama’s signature education initiative, the Common Core State Standards. It was a long time coming, though it hasn’t quite come yet.
The Common Core standards are national academic standards that will replace the often shoddy and substandard standards (if that’s not an oxymoron) of the 45 states and District of Columbia that have approved adoption. As someone who consulted for the Fordham and Pioneer Institutes on assessing the states’ English Language Arts standards in the run-up to Common Core, I can attest that many states have abominable ELA standards in which, often, a functionally illiterate student can be certified proficient in reading. Ironically, one of the causes of such shoddy state standards is the federal government’s last major attempt at reform, the Bush-era No Child Left Behind initiative, which enacted harsh penalties for states whose students do not test proficient in reading and math. The bar was set impossibly high, culminating in the Lake Wobegon-esque requirement that all children test proficient in reading and math by 2014. It should be no surprise that many states reacted to this unrealistic demand by degrading their standards to the point that the definition of “proficiency” would be low enough to escape the Department of Education’s ideological fervor.
So what’s wrong with high standards? Nothing, of course, but the federal government’s ability to implement such a vast, one-size-fits-all program is questionable. For instance, in California we already have world-class, rigorous standards, developed by us a decade ago without federal pressure. We spent about $2 billion writing and implementing those standards, so the question naturally arises why we should spend hundreds of millions more replacing them. The California Department of Education’s cost-benefit analysis (page 8) of the statewide cost of Common Core implementation estimates $600 million for new textbooks, new standards for English learners, and training of teachers and principals. This does not include the cost of writing and implementing a replacement for the state standardized test, the CST, which will cost further hundreds of millions. EdSource estimated two years ago that Common Core could cost as much as $1.6 billion to implement in California.
Whatever the cost, there will be no matching federal funds to offset the cost. The state will pay all of it. One might well ask why Gov. Jerry Brown accepts this unfunded mandate and unnecessary expense at the same time that he asks us to vote for Proposition 30 to increase our taxes in support of the state’s insolvent schools.
Beyond California’s situation, there are a host of concerns with Common Core that have been expressed over the last two years by large numbers of right-of-center Republicans, a constituency that Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney, a centrist by nature, hopes to retain. These range from Constitutional questions about the federal government managing local education, to fears of a federal (or, per some circles, a global) attempt to control the social views of children. It was only a matter of time before Romney’s number crunchers noticed the votes to be mined, many in swing states, by going after Common Core.
Strangely, however, Romney and his consultants got the facts wrong, as one gathered from the title of the Education Week article that detailed Romney’s September statements in opposition to Common Core: “Romney, No (to) Federal Support for Common Core.” What federal support? The total amount of money designated to states that adopt Common Core is $360 million, and that is reserved for designing assessments, not Common Core implementation. The estimated cost of nationwide adoption and implementation, per the Pioneer Institute, is $10 billion, considered by many a low-ball estimate. The states are to pay the whole tab! But Romney, quoted by Ed Week, says, “I don’t happen to believe that every time there’s an initiative that comes along, the federal government should finance it.” Really? Then he should be happy with Common Core.
Romney continues: “It’s one thing to put it out as a model and let people adopt it as they will, but to financially reward states based upon accepting the federal government’s idea of a curriculum, I think, is a mistake.”
The misconception continued in the Oct. 15 debate between Obama education adviser Jon Schnur and Romney advisor Phil Handy, when Handy, as quoted in EdSource, again complained that the federal government is financially rewarding states for adopting the standards.
Thus Romney and his consultants have inadvertently agreed with Obama policy, which clearly adheres to the principal that the states should not be financially rewarded for adopting the national standards.
One might argue that Romney’s consultants have earned their keep just by putting him on record against Common Core, but they are throwing away the votes of people who are hearing about Common Core for the first time, which is puzzling. Average voters are not going to feel like mastering the constitutional issues, or ponder hypothetical scenarios of federal control of children’s minds. I long ago had to forgo all hope that politicians would express my own problem with Common Core: Standards should not be a priority when schools are going bankrupt.
What do voters care about? We can look to the campaign for the answer: Money, jobs, the recession. Well then, Common Core is tailor-made for an economic argument. Why is President Obama coercing the states into coughing up billions they don’t have for standards they either don’t need or don’t need right this second? Just to make publishers and test writing companies rich?
Seems like a solid campaign line, doesn’t it? But you take the wind out of its sails when you get the facts wrong and insist on the right of states not to receive any funds for Common Core. That right has already been granted. Gov. Romney should take a closer look at this issue. It’s a guaranteed vote getter if he gets the details right.
Doug Lasken taught 25 years for Los Angeles Unified, 15 years as an elementary teacher and 10 as a high school English teacher before retiring in 2009. After retirement he taught English for the UCLA Writing Project at Handong University in South Korea. Doug currently works part-time as debate coach at New Community Jewish High School in West Hills, California. He served four years on the Content Review Panel for the California Star Test, and has consulted for WestEd and the Pioneer and Fordham Institutes. He and his wife have three children, all graduates of Los Angeles Unified.
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