Chris Christie on Common Core: Political Calculations, Not Policy Considerations

On May 29, 2015 Karen Nussle, Executive Director of the Collaborative for Student Success, released the following memo on the topic of New Jersey Governor Chris Christie’s Common Core flip flop:

Following in the footsteps of other ambitious politicians, Gov. Chris Christie yesterday called for a review of the Common Core State Standards in New Jersey. The announcement may prove to be a political stanchion to make him more competitive as he prepares to enter a crowded Republican primary for president, but if recent history is a guide, the development is highly unlikely to derail the Standards in the Garden State – which is a win for New Jersey kids and parents.

Here are three things to keep in mind:

  1. Yesterday’s announcement was about politics, not about helping kids

Make no mistake, Gov. Christie’s speech may have been held in New Jersey, but he was directing his remarks at Republican primary voters in New Hampshire.

The clear purpose of Christie’s speech was to join in the public flogging of the Common Core brand and in this, he was very successful. Christie’s campaign operatives skillfully pre-released select excerpts to demonstrate his rejection of Common Core and he was rewarded with the headlines that he covets. Top newspapers breathlessly reported that Gov. Christie wanted to “pull New Jersey out of Common Core,” that he was “ready to desert Common Core,” and that he “backs away from Common Core.”

Indeed, this was a master stroke of political manipulation.

  1. Rhetoric, not proof

In fact Gov. Christie offered sharp criticisms, saying that the Common Core is “simply not working” largely because “Washington has increased its control over our students’ education.”

What Gov. Christie did not do is provide any proof. For one, the higher standards have only been fully implemented for less than two years and we will only begin to see the impact when PARCC scores are released this coming fall. This is why the Common Core is strongly supported by top New Jersey collegiate administrators like the Presidents of Raritan Valley and Passaic County Community Colleges, the Chancellor of Rutgers in Camden, and the President of Richard Stockton College.

Where states have fully implemented the Common Core – such as in Kentucky, Alabama, and Tennessee – strong evidence exists that higher standards and aligned tests are working. (For more on this, see www.HonestyGap.org.)

Moreover, there is no more federal overreach today than there was in 2013 when Christie strongly backed the standards at a KIPP charter schools conference, or when the New Jersey State Board readopted Common Core in July 2014. Today, as in the past, more than 94 percent of school funding is provided by the State of New Jersey and its local communities. Meanwhile teachers and administrators fully control decisions about classroom teaching and curriculum choices. The Common Core is only a set of target standards of knowledge, by academic year, and limited only to math and English. If there is any new federal overreach, then Gov. Christie failed to identify what it is. And if it’s “not working” he provided no specific evidence of that either.

  1. No substantive policy changes

Finally, and perhaps most importantly, what has so far been unreported is that Gov. Christie made absolutely no substantive policy changes. The standards will be reviewed, localized, and perhaps updated – no different than more than nearly a dozen other states including Alabama, Arizona, Colorado, Florida, Georgia, Iowa, Kentucky, Massachusetts, Pennsylvania, Tennessee, and Utah where the Common Core standards remain largely in place as the “floor” for standards that were higher than states had in the past.

Policymakers in those states understood that it is virtually impossible to produce a set of high quality standards that bear no resemblance to Common Core. Indiana “abolished” Common Core, only to replace it with a nearly indistinguishable ‘new’ set of standards. Oklahoma, on the other hand, enacted a law prohibiting any new standards from resembling Common Core, and it ended up resorting back to its inferior Standards.

On the other hand, and to his credit, Gov. Christie reiterated his support for keeping the Common Core-aligned PARCC test:

“This will in no way affect our efforts to continue effective testing and measurement of our students through the PARCC test. We must continue to review and improve that test based on results, not fear or speculation … We must test our children because federal law requires it and because it is the only way to objectively judge our progress.”

Conclusion

Gov. Christie has every right to call for a review of Common Core State Standards in New Jersey – exerting the local control that we support. If the state ends up tweaking and renaming the standards, it will be acting in a way that is entirely consistent with how Common Core was designed to function – as exemplar standards for states to improve and build upon.

After all, only one or two states have actually abandoned the Common Core and, as we have written earlier, scores of politically “red” states have stuck with the Common Core.

In the end, Chris Christie faces the same dilemma as several other GOP Presidential candidates and current governors: the political necessity to publicly criticize Common Core in order to placate a sliver of the Republican base, while balancing his responsibility to effectively oversee state education – including implementing higher academic standards and aligned, modernized tests that will actually help kids succeed.

His unique challenge, however is how to hold on to notion that he is one of few straight talking leaders who regularly demonstrates political courage – as that seems to no longer be the case.