When Donald Trump was running for president, he said that should he win, he would “get rid” of the Common Core State Standards — as if the initiative had been mandated by the federal government. It actually was approved by state bodies, departments of education or legislatures. No president can simply order it gone.
Betsy DeVos, the Michigan billionaire whom the president-elect tapped to serve as education secretary, is now making the same pledge that Trump did. Appearing with Trump on Friday night at his “thank you to voters” rally in Grand Rapids, Mich., she said she will work to put “an end to the federal Common Core” and let states set their own standards. Apparently nobody told her that states already can.
The Washington Examiner reported what DeVos said at the rally:
“In deference to the U.S. Senate confirmation, I’m not giving interviews, but just between us let me share this,” DeVos told the crowd gathered in Grand Rapids. “It’s time to make education great again in this country.”
“This means putting kids first,” she said to cheers. “This means expanding choices and options to give every child the opportunity for a quality education regardless of their Zip code or family circumstances. This means letting states set their own standards and finally putting an end to the federal Common Core.”
The Core is a set of math and English language arts standards that were initially adopted fully by 45 states and the District of Columbia, with bipartisan support. Jeb Bush, the former Florida governor who ran against Trump for the Republican presidential nomination, was a big supporter; during the GOP primary campaign, Trump blasted him for it, saying early in 2016, “And he’s in favor of Common Core because he’s not a smart man.”
The standards and aligned assessments have become controversial over the past five years, with critics from both ends of the political spectrum coming out against it for different reasons. Some educators and researchers questioned the way the standards were written (whether, for example, there was any or enough input from working teachers). Some criticized the content of the standards, especially for young children. Some critics said standards-based education has never been shown to be effective, and others felt the administration’s involvement usurped local authority. Tea party members and even the Republican National Committee jumped onto the anti-Core bandwagon, accusing the Obama administration of a federal takeover of public education, extreme right-wing rhetoric that clouded a real discussion about the Core.
A few states have in recent years dropped the Core, while others made minimal changes and gave the standards a new name. The vast majority of states still use the standards, however, having invested many millions of dollars into implementation as well as on new Core-aligned tests.
The Core was strongly supported by the Obama administration, which offered federal funds to states that adopt the standards as part of the federal Race to the Top initiative, an effort that many say amounted to coercion. The Education Department also paid $360 million to create Common Core-aligned standardized tests.
But the fact remains that states did not have to accept federal money. Texas and Virginia were among those that refused.
The Obama administration also tried to get state officials to stick with the Core through its controversial waivers from the most burdensome parts of No Child Left Behind. These waivers were awarded to states that promised to enact specific reforms favored by the administration. In 2015, that law was replaced by the Every Student Succeeds Act, which sent back to the states much of the federal power over public K-12 education amassed by the Obama administration.
Ultimately, only state legislatures can eliminate the Core.
Could the soon-to-be Trump administration decide to use federal funds to coerce states to drop the Core, just as Obama’s Education Department did to get states to adopt it? Theoretically it could.
But someone should explain to the future president and his education secretary what is real and not real about the Common Core.
(Correction: An earlier version said state legislatures approved the Core standards. In most cases it was state boards of education.)