GOP candidates taking aim at Common Core academic standards

Author: The Associated Press
School lunch for students. (Credit: MGN)

WASHINGTON (AP) – Note to Republican presidential candidates:

Congress passed, with broad bipartisan support, an education law that specifically says the federal government cannot push academic standards such as Common Core or give incentives to states that adopt them. On top of that, Common Core standards were established by state governors, not Washington.

So is the talk about killing Common Core just that – talk?

Of the three remaining GOP presidential candidates, only Ohio Gov. John Kasich supports the rigorous academic standards.

The others are vehement in their opposition.

“We’re getting rid of Common Core,” Donald Trump said during a debate in early this month.

At the most recent debate, March 10 in Miami, he said: “I want local education. I want the parents, and I want all of the teachers, and I want everybody to get together around a school and to make education great.”

Sen. Ted Cruz, too, is opposed to Common Core. He has called the academic standards a “perverse” mandate. At the Miami debate, he said, “Common Core is a disaster. And if I am elected president, in the first days as president I will direct the Department of Education that Common Core ends that day.”

What they fail to mention is that Common Core began as a state-driven campaign to raise learning standards for the nation’s schoolchildren. Launched in 2009, the idea was to embrace learning goals by grade across all 50 states to make sure kids in Iowa were on track and receiving a quality education along with students in California, Maine and elsewhere – and to ensure that all students were prepared for life after high school, for college or a job.

It was a project of governors and state school chiefs.

Much of the backlash against Common Core began when the federal government, through its Race to the Top program, started giving education grants to states that adopted higher academic standards. That grant money has run its course, and the new education law bars future use of incentives for embracing Common Core or any standards.

Even with Race to the Top, there was no federal mandate to adopt Common Core.

Chad Aldeman, an associate partner at Bellwether Education Partners, says this notion that the federal government “must stop” Common Core runs contrary to the long-held Republican position that governance of public schools is a state issue.

“It’s a little bit ironic that they’ve been sounding the alarm about federal control and now the leading Republican presidential candidates all want to take federal action against a state initiative,” Aldeman said in an interview. “There’s really nothing that they could do to stop Common Core other than using the bully pulpit to try to convince states to back out of their own commitments.”

Trump has acknowledged that Common Core was set up by the states. “But it has all been taken over now by the bureaucrats in Washington, and they are not interested in what’s happening in Miami or in Florida, in many cases,” he said.

Without referring to Common Core by its name, Kasich made clear at the Miami debate that he’s in favor of “high standards” for Ohio. “In our state, the state school board sets the standards.”

The education law passed Congress in December with overwhelming support from both parties and was quickly signed by President Barack Obama. The law revamps the widely criticized No Child Left Behind Act and substantially limits the federal government’s role in public schools, including its powers to push academic standards. Cruz missed the vote in the Senate on the bill.

“Republicans are campaigning on outdated talking points,” says Bellwether’s Aldeman.

Many millions of dollars have been spent on the standards – professional development, revamped assessments aligned with the standards, new teaching materials, said Robert Pondiscio, a senior fellow at the Thomas B. Fordham Institute.

“It’s important to take all of this with a grain of salt,” Pondiscio says of the kill Common Core talk. “It’s possible some states might change the name, but the idea that we’re going to see a wholesale retreat from Common Core. … I don’t see it happening no matter who wins in November.”

The standards outline skills students should learn and know in math and reading by the end of each grade. They emphasize critical thinking, with less of a focus on memorization.

By 2013, 45 states had adopted the standards. The following year, Indiana became the first state to withdraw formally from Common Core. South Carolina and Oklahoma followed, as conservatives complained the standards represented a federal takeover of education. Many parents also expressed frustration with Common Core, frazzled by a new way of looking at math that left them unable to help their kids with their homework.

Still, the standards remain in 42 states.

“States don’t have the time, they don’t have the money, to sort of begin something new,” says Maria Ferguson, executive director at the Center on Education Policy.  Ferguson has been working with teachers around the country to implement the higher academic standards.

“Most places feel the standards are here to stay,” she said. “They may be tweaked and changed, but they are here to stay.”

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