Or is he just jerking us around?
This week the state senate of Utah joined the gathering protest against the federally coerced Common Core State Standards by passing a bill asserting state sovereignty to withdraw from the Common Core. Kudos to the state’s legislature for passing the bill and to Governor Herbert for his support of it.
Utah’s effort comes on the heels of similar efforts in Indiana, South Carolina and elsewhere. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan, fresh off his temper tantrum against dissident South Carolina, weighed in on the Utah effort with a letter supposedly affirming Utah’s right to change the Common Core standards at will. Specifically, he stated, “States have the sole right to set learning standards.”
If Duncan meant what he seemed to say, then the Common Core Initiative falls apart. So could this be what he meant, given his consistent cheerleading and arm-twisting for Common Core? Unlikely. More likely is that he was choosing his words carefully (or shall we say deceptively) to tamp down the rebellion in Utah before it spreads to other states.
Duncan was responding to a letter in which Utah State Superintendent of Education Larry Shumway asserted “the Board’s right to make changes to, and to add or subtract from, the Utah Core Standards at its discretion.” Shumway continued, “On behalf of the Board, I assert its right to complete control of Utah’s learning standards in all areas of our public education curriculum.” By the way, if there is no federal control over common core, it is puzzling why Shumway would feel the need to run this by Duncan. In response, Duncan quoted the second sentence and said he agreed with it. He did not reference the part about Utah’s right to add to, subtract from, or otherwise change the Common Core standards.
The problem with the idea that Utah can alter the Common Core standards however it wants is that the federal Race to the Top (RTTT) application, through which the feds imposed Common Core on Utah in the first place, clearly states the opposite. That application requires the applicant to adopt “a set of content standards . . . that are substantially identical across all States in a consortium.” If the states can change the Common Core standards at will, the standards will no longer be “substantially identical” across the consortium of states. They will become “un-Common” rather than “Common.”
The RTTT application further specifies that the only changes an applicant may make to Common Core is the addition of supplemental standards, “provided that the additional standards do not exceed 15 percent of the State’s total standards for that content area.” There is no provision for subtracting from the Common Core. Indeed, Achieve, Inc., the Washington, DC interest group that actually created the standards (with special interest money), warned that “states who adopt [the Common Core standards] are expected to adopt them in their entirety.” Achieve further discouraged the states from adding even the paltry 15 percent allowed under RTTT, noting that excessive state independence “would dilute the overall focus of the standards” and would threaten “the use of common assessments and instructional materials.”
Indeed. The whole point of this national-standards campaign is to have students across the nation studying the same subjects with the same textbooks, and taking the same tests. Without this uniformity, the entire structure collapses in a heap. So . . . what did Arne Duncan mean when he affirmed that Utah has “complete control of Utah’s learning standards in all areas of [its] public education curriculum”?
The only reasonable conclusion is that Duncan was parsing the Shumway letter to find something he could agree with and therefore derail the anti-Common Core effort. What he found that he could affirm was that Utah controls its standards – if “controls” is interpreted to mean that Utah can choose either to adopt Common Core or to stick with its own standards. Given that the Obama Administration has not yet completely obliterated the Constitution, this is certainly true. But once Utah chooses Common Core, Duncan and the feds have made it manifestly clear that Utah – and every Common Core state — must play by their rules. No other interpretation of the Duncan letter makes sense.