Debate “Fact Checker” Ignores the Real Facts About Common Core

Photo credit: Gage Skidmore
Photo credit: Gage Skidmore

The day after the confirmation of New York Common Core enforcer John King as U.S. Secretary of Education has brought about a flurry of commentary about Common Core and the election.

The most parallel-universe analysis comes from Michelle Ye Hee Lee at The Washington Post, who “fact checks” Ted Cruz, Donald Trump, and John Kasich on their statements on Common Core during last Thursday’s debate. Lee sets the stage for her mistaken discussion by swallowing whole the Common Core talking points — the national standards were “crafted by a bipartisan group of governors and state school chiefs representing most states,” states and localities control the curriculum, and the Obama administration appropriately used the Race to the Top (RttT) program as an incentive for states to adopt the standards.

Taking the last point first, Lee hammers Cruz — the only of these three candidates who has accurately explained the role of RttT — for claiming abuse of federal power through that program. She acknowledges that the RttT incentives to adopt Common Core were substantial, but she still claims the decision was completely voluntary.

Her analysis misses the mark in two ways. First, her claim of “voluntariness” is tenuous — in a time of deep recession, states grabbed at the “free” federal money tied to Common Core because they felt they had no other choice. Second, the RttT program especially could be characterized as an abuse of federal power because, unlike with some other federal incentive programs, the federal government has no appropriate role in education to begin with. Cruz correctly articulates that making states an offer they can’t refuse, to implement policy the federal government has no right to influence, is an abuse of federal power.

Turning to Trump’s statement that the federal government “took over” Common Core, Lee incoherently argues that this claim can’t be true because Congress just passed a law “explicitly banning federal influence on states’ decisions on education standards.”

Where to begin? In the first place, Trump’s statement is incorrect not for the reason advanced by Lee, but rather because the federal government didn’t “take over” the Common Core initiative — the feds did exactly what the Common Core creators invited them to do from the beginning. But in any event, the new law she references (the Every Student Succeeds Act, or ESSA), properly understood, proves the fallacy of her claim. Even if ESSA did ban federal influence concerning education standards (which it doesn’t), the fact is that the bill, with its Potemkin protections for state autonomy, was passed in response to the federal overreach on Common Core. So the enactment of ESSA proves the Obama administration acted improperly in pushing the states to accept Common Core.

(Interestingly, Rick Hess of the American Enterprise Institute, who blows hot and cold on the national standards that were financed by one of his employer’s major donorstakes Lee apart on her claims of federal innocence in this saga.)

Lee completes her tour de force of misrepresentation by awarding Kasich the “Geppetto checkmark,” which apparently means she thinks he’s telling the truth. If we wrench ourselves back through the looking glass, we see that in fact, what Kasich says about Common Core is more wildly off base than any of the other candidates’ claims. The Common Core standards were crafted by private special interests, not by “the governors”; any “adjustment” of the standards by individual states was cosmetic rather than substantive (indeed, the original initiative forbade states from adding more than 15 percent to the standards); and the idea that local school boards are developing curricula at all, much less curricula unmoored from Common Core, is simply delusional (Hess’s critique is on target on this point as well).

On another front, Nashville Public Radio reports that Sen. Lamar Alexander is puzzled that Common Core is still an issue in the presidential campaign. After all, didn’t he relieve Jeb Bush of Common Core pressure by ramming through ESSA, with its “surface-y soundbites” (to quote former Education Secretary Arne Duncan) supposedly limiting federal power? Alexander seems exasperated that the anti-Common Core grassroots know what ESSA really does and doesn’t do, and that the candidates are responding to their demand for real change in education policy. Oh, for the days when the people had no idea what was going on in education and were content to leave it to the “experts” . . . .

Jane Robbins is an attorney and a senior fellow with the American Principles Project.