Could Common Core kill school choice?

Casey Given Editor, Young Voices
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Today marks the beginning of National School Choice Week, an annual effort to give American children more educational options than the public schools assigned to them by zip code. Proponents of parental choice have a lot to celebrate this week, coming on the heels of a successful year for the cause. Indiana’s voucher program – the largest in the country – was upheld as constitutional after a fierce union challenge. Colorado’s Douglas County reelected their aggressively pro-reform school board. Ten states expanded their private choice programs, to name only a few of 2013’s many victories.

While choice supporters should rightfully cheer their accomplishments this week, they should not ignore the looming cloud Common Core has cast on the school choice movement. With the new national standards kicking into effect for many states this year, soon no American child will be out of Common Core’s reach.

What is Common Core? Well, it depends on who you ask. According to the initiative’s website, Common Core is a “state-led effort coordinated by the National Governor’s Association Center for Best Practices (NGA Center) and the Council of Chief State School Officers (CSSO) … to prepare our children for college and the workforce” with robust national education standards. However, many states tell a different story of Common Core being a backhanded way for the federal control to take control of America’s classrooms.

Indeed, 45 states and the District of Columbia hastily adopted the national standards in 2010 after the U.S. Department of Education (ED) required it to access President Obama’s $4.35 billion Race to the Top fund. With state and local school districts pinched after the Great Recession, most could not resist the chance to cash in on the president’s new push – even if there wasn’t sufficient time to properly review the standards.

In fact, some states like Pennsylvania adopted the standards only one month after they were officially released, leaving countless concerned parents and teachers in the dark about what their children will be learning. As a result, a grassroots movement has erupted in the Keystone State and across the country urging educators and elected officials to reconsider their decision. Indiana, Michigan, and Pennsylvania have paused the standards’ implementation for further review, and several others states are considering leaving the standardized test consortia.

Why are the states so up in arms? Despite being a supposedly “state-led” initiative, Common Core has heavy ties to the federal government. Specifically, the Department of Education announced the establishment of a technical review board last March to oversee “item design and validation” of Common Core’s standardized test. As such, many fear the department will effectively become “a national school board,” as Sen. Marco Rubio described it last summer.

Common Core supporters often attempt to dismiss these fears by pointing out that standardized tests are not standards, or curricula for that matter, and thus the review board will have little effect on what American children are learning. However, anyone who’s ever sat in a classroom knows the truism that what’s on the test is what’s taught in class. Any decent teacher would be neglecting their pupils if they did not rigorously prepare them for success on Common Core’s standardized tests. As such, the federal government has successfully built a pipeline from 400 Maryland Avenue in DC, to all of America’s classrooms.

That’s right, all of them. Even children enrolled in a school choice program or homeschooled will need to learn the Core. As public institutions, charter schools will have to conform to Common Core’s standards and subject their students to its tests lest they lose accreditation. Many private schools are voluntarily aligning their curricula to Common Core as well, as evidenced by the Common Core Catholic Identity Initiative aiming to persuade the Church’s dioceses to adopt the standards. Even homeschoolers will effectively need to learn the Core or be at a disadvantage for college admission considering that both the SAT and ACT are aligning to the standards.

Common Core’s one-size-fits-all uniform for America’s schoolchildren is completely antithetical to school choice, which is why it should be a primary concern on National School Choice Week. Charter schools and voucher programs have experienced great success because they do precisely the opposite of Common Core by empowering parents and teachers with the autonomy to tailor their children’s education to individual needs instead of tying them down with red tape. How can this marketplace of education survive if every product must effectively be the same?

Fortunately, it’s not too late for school choice. Most states won’t fully implement Common Core until 2015, leaving time for the school choice community to reassert their independence. The choice and voice of America’s parents over their child’s education is at stake.