A Democrat And A Republican Meet Halfway On Common Core

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Blake Neff Reporter
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Scarcely a week goes by without a high-profile politician turning against Common Core, but the standards still have supporters. Those supporters are fighting back.

Two of them, former Tennessee Democratic Rep. Harold Ford Jr. and former Alabama Republican Gov. Bob Riley, are collaborating to push a bipartisan message in favor of the embattled standards.

Ford told The Daily Caller News Foundation that the need for common, high standards was obvious just from a quick glance at America’s lagging global education performance. America’s scores on global reading and math tests are stagnating while other nations rise, he said, and the lack of consistent standards aligned to what colleges and employers want is a reason why.

“We’re spending more money at public colleges and universities today in remedial education when kids graduate high school. If we don’t adopt some form of common standards…I think those numbers will worsen,” said Ford. “We’re spending more money in the private sector because career-ready and career-prepared young people are not graduating high school and community college as they should.”

Faced with the problem of unprepared high school graduates struggling in the job market, Ford and Riley say the solution of shared, minimum standards was immediately appealing to both parties.

“I can’t help but be attracted to something where you have Democrat and Republican governors alike calling for these kinds of changes,” said Ford. “I don’t believe Common Core alone will solve all this, but Common Core is an important part because it sets expectations and standards.”

Riley, meanwhile, emphasized that because of Common Core’s unusual creation through elaborate cooperation between several dozen states’ education departments, it represents the ideal way to have different states compare each others’ educational accomplishments without ceding any ground to the federal government. He even went so far as to call the Core a “firewall” against increased federal meddling as long as it remains in place. If Common Core ends up falling apart, he warned, the states would find themselves significantly more vulnerable to specific federal dictates.

“If you went back to where every state had its own standards…and each state had to justify that standard, I would hate to see the federal government then come in, and try to establish a parameter that you had to operate within in order to participate in federal education appropriations.”

The current set-up, Riley said, is far preferable, and admirably hands-off. In Alabama, he said, the standards may be common, but the curriculum is all local.

“There’s not a textbook, there’s not a suggested reading list, there is nothing that we can’t change, not even at the state level, but at the local [level],” he said.

Riley cited as an example the city of Homewood, Alabama, a Birmingham suburb where his daughter lives. There, he recounted, three mothers had objected to the content of a Common Core-aligned textbook and complained to the local superintendent.

“The Superintendent said, ‘I agree with you!’ and pulled the book,” Riley said. “They didn’t have to go to Washington. They didn’t have to go to Montgomery. They went to that local entity and said ‘We have a problem with this,’ the superintendent agrees, they pull it.”

Ford spoke similarly, saying that despite the attacks against it, Common Core’s implementation remains very local in nature.

“I think it preserves the right balance between local and state control and [federal control], meaning, it’s all state and local control,” he said. “There’s no federal involvement at all in terms of developing standards, in terms of implementing these standards, and in terms of holding teachers and students accountable.”

Riley said the level of backlash against Common Core by conservatives has surprised him, but that the cause of it is no mystery. The blame, he says, lies with Race to the Top, President Obama’s ambitious first-term plan providing bonus education funds to states that aggressively adopted certain educational reforms, including Common Core. Ever since the Race began, the Obama administration has been inextricably tied to the standards, and since conservatives largely despise the president, they became tainted regardless of their own merits. Race to the Top, not the nature of the standards themselves, is the true starting point for Common Core’s opposition, Riley argued.

“There was never even a criticism [of Common Core] until Race to the Top,” he said. Because of that origin, however, he suggested that hatred towards Common Core may not outlive the President’s second term. “There’s a perception that the federal government is overreaching, [but] I’m not too sure that it will still be there when another administration comes in.”

Regardless of the party of the president who follows Obama, Riley said he believed they would not make the same mistake Obama did, and would instead reaffirm that educational standards are the exclusive domain of the states, thereby reducing the ability for shared standards to become a national political issue. Should Common Core make it that long, he said, it will flourish.

Both expressed confidence that Common Core, despite ongoing flare-ups against it in Arizona, Wisconsin, Tennessee, and elsewhere, will indeed be able to sustain itself. Ford said that while opponents can make a great fuss about the standards, in the end they are fatally hindered by the need defend an earlier, failing system.

“Our opponents can’t answer two questions: Are you really serious you want to return to the old standards that produced these pathetic and awful education results? Are you really serious about returning to a set of standards that makes it more expensive to send kids to college?… I don’t think people want to return to that,” said Ford.

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