One of the earliest offerings of RINOcracy.com was “Blog No 3. Common Core State Standards: A New Cause for the Tea Party.” Since then, controversy over the Common Core State Standards (CCSS) has grown rather than diminished, and has become more complex. While the CCSS are the centerpiece of political debate, there are also disputes at federal, state and local levels over charter schools, vouchers and teacher tenure.
These are important issues that deserve the attention of RINOs and other Republicans. As we struggle with the challenges of income inequality and economic mobility, very few dispute that improving education is an essential ingredient of any successful approach to meeting those challenges. Moreover, it is increasingly apparent that first-rate education is vital to the ability of the United States to compete globally. But improvements are not easy to come-by. Different constituencies have differing perspectives, and attempts at reform that challenge the status quo inevitably generate resistance. Education reform is no exception.
The Need For Improvement
While the need for improvement is generally acknowledged, a couple of points are worth keeping in mind.
In December, 2013, the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development released the report of its Program for International Student Assessment, or PISA. The PISA report is a comprehensive and widely-respected global survey assessing half a million 15 and 16 year-olds every three years. The latest report was not an encouraging view of education in the United States. American students ranked just 17th in reading, 21st in science, and 26th in math—behind countries such as Estonia, Poland and Vietnam.
Educational weakness has real-world consequences. A 2013 report by the Bureau of Labor Statistics showed a direct correlation between both unemployment and earnings and the level of education attained. At the same time, and consistent with that data, The Wall Street Journal reported in December, 2013 that businesses were having difficulty in finding qualified workers to fill job openings:
The Labor Department reported that job openings in October increased to a new high for this recovery. Non-farm entities had 3.925 million unfilled positions at the end of October, up 7.7% from year-ago levels.
Despite the high level of unemployment and underemployment in the U.S., businesses, especially small firms, are finding it increasingly difficult to find the right person to fill a slot. The National Federation of Independent Business reported Tuesday that 23% of its members had positions they could not fill in November.
Some of the unfilled openings no doubt required higher education or technical training, but a solid K-12 education is an indispensable foundation for either.
Common Core State Standards (CCSS)
Blog No 3 discussed the development of the CCSS and the emerging political controversy they had generated. Readers who missed that Blog, or would like to revisit it, can find it here. Very briefly, the CCSS were developed by state educators under the leadership of the National Governors Association in order to provide clear standards in Mathematics and English Language Arts. Criticism of the standards from the Tea Party – and, sadly enough, the Republican National Committee – reflected a fear that the CCSS represented an intrusion into educational matters that should be left to state and local authorities.
As explained in Blog No. 3, that criticism is fundamentally misplaced: the CCSS were developed not by the federal government but by the states. Nevertheless, the criticism has gained some momentum. A report in Education Week this month was entitled “A Spate of GOP Bills Take Aim At Common Core” and it described the hostility to CCSS on the part of some Congressional Republicans:
Add yet another anti-common-core bill from Congress to your tally. Sen. Lindsay Graham, R-S.C., a moderate who is facing a tough primary challenge, has introduced a resolution that makes it clear education is a state issue, and that the U.S. Secretary of Education should not coerce states into adopting common education standards.
The resolution—introduced Feb. 5—also states that the federal government shouldn’t give states who adopt common core an edge in any future grant competitions. (The Obama administration gave states that adopted the Common Core State Standards—46, plus the District of Columbia—a leg-up in the Race to the Top contest.)
The language has been endorsed by eight GOP senators, including Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas, a tea party hero, and Sen. Mike Enzi of Wyoming, a leader on K-12 issues who is also up for re-election.
There’s a companion version of the bill in the House, introduced Wednesday—by Rep. Jeff Duncan, R-S.C., and endorsed by more than 40 lawmakers. The legislation joins at least two other recent GOP bills—one by Rep. Phil Gingrey of Georgia and one by Sen. Pat Roberts of Kansas, that each take aim at the common core. For what it’s worth, Gingrey is running for Senate in the Peach State and Roberts is up for re-election in Kansas.
It is unlikely that any of the anti-CCSS bills will pass or what effect they would have if passed. However, they reflect a sentiment that may become more significant at the state level. Although none of the 45 states that adopted the CCSS have abandoned them, efforts to do so have been initiated by Republican legislators in several.
While the federal government did not create the CCSS, and has not mandated them, it did provided incentives for their adoption by states. As a matter of strategy, the federal government’s rather swift and noisy leap onto the CCSS bandwagon may have been a mistake, giving some conservatives a reason to oppose them. Nor were President Obama’s personal endorsements necessarily a help. As one conservative who is a supporter of the CCSS put it on the eve of this year’s State of the Union message: “It’s imperative that the president not say anything about the Common Core State Standards. For two years running, he’s taken credit for the adoption of these standards, which has only fueled critics on the right who see this effort as a way for the federal government to take over control of the schools.” Heeding such advice, Obama did not refer to the CCSS in his 2014 Message although he had done so the two previous years.
The concern among Republicans over the federal role in education is understandable. Nevertheless, it is a romantic and dangerous notion to suggest that all would be well if the federal government simply went away and matters were left entirely in the hands of individual states and school boards. It is precisely because of the failings of the latter entities that the new standards were developed in the first place.
Nor is there much merit to the comment of the Republican Governor of South Carolina, Nikki Haley: “We don’t ever want to educate South Carolina children like they educate California children. We want to educate South Carolina children on South Carolina standards, not anyone else’s standards.” A similar argument was persuasively addressed by two eminent professors of mathematics writing in The Wall Street Journal:
The Republican National Committee is opposed to the Core Standards on the grounds that education is the prerogative of the states and their school districts. But this argument ignores the fact that mathematics represents objective, timeless and necessary truths. These truths apply uniformly and equally to any citizen, regardless of geographic location. Fractions mean the same thing in Iowa and Alabama as they do in California and Texas.
It is more important than ever that we create a level playing field to give students from all states equal opportunity to thrive in our technology-driven world in which formulas and equations play a crucial role. With more and more jobs requiring more and more mathematical knowledge, we are obligated to provide our children with equal access to a quality mathematics education, and this is the whole point of the Core Standards.
Arguably, the issue may seem less clear-cut in the case of English Language Arts, but Shakespeare in Iowa and Alabama is still Shakespeare in California and Texas—and South Carolina. Moreover, the CCSS do not mandate the curricula by which the Standards will be achieved.
Opposition to the CCSS among Republicans is by no means universal. Proponents of the CCSS have prominently included Jeb Bush, who has been a strong and consistent advocate of them. Support has also come from Chris Christie, Bobby Jindal and Mike Hukabee (although the latter recently suggested a “rebranding” of the Standards since their name had become “toxic”). In addition, the CCSS retain strong support among educators and within the business community (led by the U.S. Chamber of Commerce).
Implementation problems have centered around concerns of how quickly the CCSS can be put into place, curricula adopted, students tested on them and teachers evaluated on their students’ performance. Such concerns have resulted in some erosion of the early and strong support that teachers’ unions had provided. (See, e.g, “Common-Core Tensions Cause Union Heartburn,” Education Week, February 20, 2014.) The view of RINOcracy.com is that such problems should be taken seriously and addressed pragmatically, but not allowed to become an excuse for abandoning the CCSS.
Charter schools are public schools – the schools receive public funding and their students pay no tuition – but the schools are independently run. They establish their own policies and procedures, but are accountable to a local school board or state agency for student academic performance. While the overall record of such schools is mixed, they have generally enjoyed broad support from Republicans, and have also been supported by the Obama Administration.
In a July, 2013 speech, Secretary of Education Arne Duncan acknowledged wide variations in the academic results achieved by charter schools, but he paid tribute to the accomplishments of the high-performers, and he cited a study showing that “charters in several cities and a number of states are far out-performing comparable traditional public schools.” Charter schools got a further boost from President Obama in a January, 2014 speech announcing a program to create Promise Zones. In that speech, he praised the success of charter schools in Harlem: “Last year, a study found that students who win a spot in one of the charter schools score higher on standardized tests than those who don’t. In a neighborhood where higher education was once just something that other people did, you’ve got hundreds of kids who’ve now gone to college.”
Because Charter schools tend not to be unionized, they have often been the object of criticism from teachers’ unions. Indeed, one observer described Obama’s reference to the success of the Harlem charter schools as a “gut punch to the teachers’ unions.” In view of the President’s comment, it is ironic that New York City’s new Mayor Bill de Blasio has apparently embraced the negative view of the unions and embarked on a course of attempting to contain, if not dismantle, the city’s charter schools. (An account in The Wall Street Journal, describes his running battle with the city’s most prominent advocate for charter schools, Eva Moskowitz.)
Republican support for charter schools is too well established to be tainted by the endorsements of Arne Duncan and President Obama. RINOs and other Republicans (and Democrats) should support the idea of charter schools because they have demonstrated that they can deliver impressive results, particularly to minority students. But charter schools must be subject scrutiny to assure that they perform up to their promise.
Vouchers provide another escape route for children, most often minorities, who are trapped in failing schools. Under a voucher program taxpayer funds are made available to parents to apply toward tuition in private schools. Because the children using vouchers most often attend parochial schools, voucher programs were attacked as an unconstitutional support of religion, but the Supreme Court rejected the challenge in 2002 by a 5-4 decision. Since then, voucher programs have been instituted in many cities and states. They have been generally supported by Republicans and opposed by teachers’ unions and Democrats.
One of the most prominent and controversial voucher programs has been operated very effectively in the Capitol, the “D.C. Opportunity Scholarship Program.” Despite the success of the program, the Obama Administration has attempted to close it down, but has been thwarted by Congress. In her book, Radical, Michelle Rhee, the former Superintendent of Schools in the District of Columbia, eloquently described how she came to break with the Democratic Party and to change her own position on vouchers:
I just couldn’t look mother after mother in the eye and deny their children the opportunity I wanted for my own children. It would have required me to say, “Gee, I’m sorry, you’re just going to have to suck it up. I know your elementary school is a failing school, and your child will probably not learn how to read, but I really need five more years to fix the system. And while I’m fixing the system, I need you and your neighbors to be really patient. Hang in there with me. Things will get better. I promise.” Quoted in “The Daily Beast,” February 4, 2013.
Vouchers should probably not be regarded as a permanent solution. Clearly, the effort should be to strengthen the public schools so that vouchers are unnecessary. But in circumstances such as those described by Michelle Rhee, where necessary improvements cannot be accomplished in a reasonable time, it seems inescapable that parents and their children deserve the opportunity that vouchers provide.
Another important facet of the debate over educational reform is the issue of teacher tenure. Neither the debate nor the issue are new. One recent analysis traced their history from the beginning:
Education and tenure reform became a national issue following the release of A Nation at Risk, a 1983 report of President Ronald Reagan’s National Commission on Excellence in Education that found “the educational foundations of our society are presently being eroded by a rising tide of mediocrity that threatens our very future as a Nation and a people.” The report prompted states to look at reforming tenure, strengthening educational standards, and increasing the use of standardized tests.
The most interesting, and possibly most important, current development is the trial in Vergara v. California, now in progress in Los Angeles. In Vergara, it is alleged that teacher protection provisions of California statutes are unconstitutional because, by protecting incompetent teachers, they effectively deprive some students (disproportionately minorities) of their rights to equal protection of the law as guaranteed by the California constitution.
The legal theory underlying Vergara is novel, but should not be discounted. (Vergara’s lead counsel, Ted Olson, is a highly sophisticated and formidable advocate, who served as Solicitor General under President Reagan, represented George Bush in Bush v. Gore and prevailed in the Supreme Court on the challenge to California’s Proposition 8, which banned same-sex marriage. ) And while a decision in the case would directly affect only California, a victory for the plaintiff would clearly have repercussions throughout the country. Whatever the decision in Vergara, however, the reform of tenure laws is a cause deserving of support by RINOs and others.
Overall, there is no set of domestic issues that are more important to the future of America than those reflected in the broad term “educational reform.” Many of the issues are ones on which political leaders, educators, students and parents may disagree. The matter of testing, for example, involves legitimate questions of not only what is to be taught, but how to test and how often and what role the tests should play in evaluating individual students and teachers. In working through these questions, however, Republicans must acknowledge the legitimacy of a federal role in addressing problems that have national consequences, and members of both parties must remember the question and answer Michelle Rhee addressed to her fellow Democrats: “Are we beholden to the public school system at any cost, or are we beholden to the public school child at any cost? My loyalty and my duty will always be to the children.”