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Repairing the Conservative School Reform Coalition

5:20 PM, Jun 11, 2013 • By CHESTER E. FINN JR. and MICHAEL J. PETRILLI
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Some conservatives saw standards and choice as conflicting, but in fact they’re complementary, even (in today’s argot) co-dependent. Standards do a good job of clarifying the public’s expectations for schools, and signaling to parents and taxpayers whether the campus down the street is educating its students poorly or well. But standards-based reform has never had a suitable answer for failing schools. It can identify them but has had little success turning them around.

Choice, on the other hand, is great at creating new school options, places that can replace the failures and give needy kids decent alternatives. Yet market-based reform needs reliable consumer information for it to lead to strong outcomes—information that standards and tests are excellent at providing.

Sticky wickets remain, to be sure, such as the vexed question of accountability for schools of choice where tax dollars are involved. Market-minded reformers tend to argue that satisfying the “customers,” in this case parents and kids, is all that’s needed. We’ve argued, on the other hand, that since education is a public as well as a private good, choice schools—when the public is covering their costs—should also be accountable to the public for student learning. (Wholly private schools are a different matter.) Besides, we’ve seen too many examples of parents who consider everything except academic performance when selecting schools for their kids.

There’s also been much debate among conservative ed-reformers about Washington’s role. While any Republican governor worth his salt pushes for both standards and choice at the state level, it’s tough to know what Uncle Sam should or should not do. George W. Bush moved federal policy to a more aggressive stance with his No Child Left Behind act. A dozen years later, and with ample cause and provocation, Republicans in both the House and Senate are moving to roll back almost all of that. Meanwhile, for better and worse, President Obama and Education Secretary Arne Duncan have embraced key items on what had been mostly a GOP reform agenda, including charter schools, rigorous teacher evaluations, even performance-based pay. During the last election, just about the only singular education policy (at the K-12 level) that Mitt Romney could claim as his alone was vouchers.

Enter the Common Core

Though few ordinary folks have ever heard of the “Common Core,” it has emerged in recent weeks as the biggest education flashpoint among state-level GOP policymakers and in the conservative coalition generally. Prompted by Tea Party activists, a couple of influential talk-radio hosts and bloggers, some disgruntled academics, several conservative think-tanks, and a couple of shadowy but deep-pocketed funders, in April the Republican National Committee adopted a resolution blasting the Common Core as “an inappropriate overreach to standardize and control the education of our children.” Several states that previously adopted it for their schools are on the verge of backing out. It’s been a major hot button in Indiana, Michigan, Pennsylvania, and Alabama.

Why all the fuss?

Heretofore, states set their own academic standards. A few did this well but most, according to reviews undertaken by our Institute and others, faltered badly, putting forth vague expectations that lack content and rigor, are unhelpful to teachers and curriculum directors, and often promote left-wing dogma. Even the good ones differ so much from state to state that school and student performance cannot be compared around the country, much less with other lands.

Public education is indisputably the responsibility of states—embedded deeply in their constitutions—but preparing young Americans to succeed in a mobile society on a shrinking and more competitive planet calls for some uniformity of basic education expectations across the land, expectations that, if met, truly prepare young people for college and good jobs and prepare the U.S. workforce for the 21st century.

Many state leaders understand this and, beginning five years ago, the National Governors Association and Council of Chief State School Officers (to which most “state superintendents” belong) launched a foundation-funded project called the “Common Core State Standards initiative,” which gave birth (in 2010) to a set of commendably strong standards for English and math from kindergarten through high school. Our Institute’s reviewers found them superior to the academic expectations set by three-quarters of the states—and essentially on par with the rest.

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