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Federal Overreach? Common Core Is – and Always Has Been – a State and Local Initiative

Seven years ago, state leaders identified a problem: inconsistent and low academic standards created big discrepancies in classroom expectations and student achievement. So leaders from across the country got to work. The National Governors Association and the Council of Chief State School Officers worked together to compose a set of learning goals that could be shared across states and school districts. This work, which eventually became the Common Core State Standards, was led by educators, experts and policymakers representing 48 states, D.C. and several U.S. territories.

After a comprehensive vetting process, which included public input, multiple drafts and certification by an independent validation committee, the Common Core State Standards were finalized in June, 2010. States then began their own review, adoption and ratification processes, and ultimately 45 states, the District of Columbia, three U.S. territories, and the Department of Defense Education Activity voluntarily adopted the standards.  A 46th state, Minnesota, adopted the standards in English language arts, but not math.

It is important to note that development of the Common Core State Standards occurred free of any federal involvement. No federal officials served on the working teams or feedback groups, nor were any federal funds used to support the creation process at any point.

Unfortunately, in 2010 the Obama administration made adoption of “a common set of K-12 standards” a factor in the application for Race to the Top funds—which some interpreted as an endorsement of the Common Core. (It’s important to remember that work on the Common Core began long before President Obama was in office, and before this grant program was created. Both the National Governors Association and CCSSO also opposed the inclusion.) Additionally, adoption of these standards accounted for less than 10 percent of a state’s application, and states could satisfy the requirement without adopting the Common Core specifically. Moreover, nearly half the states adopted and continue to implement the Common Core despite having never been awarded Race to the Top funds.

Objective analyses have repeatedly rejected claims that the federal government coerced states into adopting the Common Core. In 2013, PolitiFact gave a “Pants on Fire” rating to allegations Common Core is a federal tool to instill religious or political ideology. “We found nothing… to suggest that the federal government is telling students what political or religious beliefs they should hold. For public schools, it wouldn’t be constitutional, anyway,” the analysis concludes.

Still, for a small subset of conservatives the issue became a rallying call. Seizing on a lack of public awareness, these groups quickly advanced the idea that Common Core State Standards were the work of the federal government, that they were imposed on states and that they would usurp local control into the public narrative—even though such claims were wildly unsupported by the facts.

Fortunately, most state and local leaders have seen past the rhetoric and redoubled their commitment to rigorous, comparable education standards. This year no states have passed full-scale repeal, marking the second consecutive year in which state legislatures have voted down or failed to move forward such legislation.

“Six years in, the debate over high, comparable standards has subsided,” Jim Cowen wrote this year. “Predictions of widespread repeal have failed to materialize… If there were any question remaining, it seems to be firmly resolved: states are sticking with higher standards based on the Common Core.”

Instead, state and local leaders have set to reviewing the standards and building on them to ensure they meet their students’ needs—exactly as the Common Core was designed. Common Core State Standards “are a floor, not a ceiling,” Karen Nussle explained. “And they were absolutely designed to allow states to tweak, amend, and generally customize them in order to meet local needs.”

States have put their stamp of ownership on the Common Core, reaffirming that the initiative remains a state-led effort and control of education remains where it should—with state and local officials. In Utah, for example, a review ordered by the Governor and conducted by the state Attorney General concluded the state’s adoption of the Common Core in no way compromised its educational autonomy or control over curriculum.

If parents needed further assurance, they got it in the Every Student Succeeds Act, which was signed into law in December and permanently replaces No Child Left Behind. The law explicitly prohibits the federal government from interfering in states’ decisions over education standards—clarifying once and for all that choosing academic standards is a decision reserved for the states.

Calling the Every Student Succeeds Act a “huge win for conservatives,” Congressman John Kline, chair of the House Committee on Education and the Workforce, explained: “The federal government should not be able to tell states what standards they can or cannot adopt. If states want to use Common Core, it is not the place of the federal government to tell them they cannot do that.”

Though some opponents continue to insist the Common Core is an example of federal overreach, the evidence paints a much different picture. Meanwhile, state and local leaders are moving forward with high, consistent education standards that fully prepare students for college and careers and customizing the standards to meet their needs.

About the Collaborative for Student Success

At our core, we believe leaders at all levels have a role to play in ensuring success for K-12 students. From ensuring schools and teachers are equipped with the best materials to spotlighting the innovative and bold ways federal recovery dollars are being used to drive needed changes, the Collaborative for Student Success aims to inform and amplify policies making a difference for students and families.

To recover from the most disruptive event in the history of American public schools, states and districts are leveraging unprecedented resources to make sure classrooms are safe for learning, providing students and teachers with the high-quality instructional materials they deserve, and are rethinking how best to measure learning so supports are targeted where they’re needed most. 

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