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The key Common Core questions no senator asked Betsy DeVos to answer

President-elect Donald Trump and Betsy DeVos greet each other as they speak at a “USA Thank You Tour 2016” stop in Grand Rapids, Mich. on Dec. 09, 2016. (Photo by Jabin Botsford/The Washington Post)
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If one were betting on it, the one subject that seemed an almost sure thing to come up in a big way at the Senate confirmation hearing of the next U.S. education secretary, it would have been the Common Core State Standards. It didn’t.

For years the Core has been at or near the top of controversial education initiatives. It started as a bipartisan effort to create a set of math and English language arts standards for students across the country to use, but it became an educational and political mess.

Many states rushed to implement it without giving teachers sufficient time to learn it, and critics from every part of the political spectrum found fault with some part of the initiative. It was clear it had seeped into the culture when comedian Louis C.K. tweeted concerns about it and Core-aligned standardized testing. And it played a role in sparking a grass roots revolt against the Core and related testing.

Was Louis C.K. right about the Common Core?

When Donald Trump was running for the Republican presidential nomination, he said repeatedly — in debates and speeches — that “we are going into get rid of Common Core,” sometimes in response to questions about how he is going to cut federal spending.  (GOP candidates Sen. Ted Cruz (Texas) and  Sen. Marco Rubio (Florida) also trashed it, though former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush didn’t say that because he was a big supporter of the Core, underscoring the divide within parties about it.)

The only problem was that a president can’t just declare an end to the initiative. It was approved by state bodies, departments of education or legislatures in nearly all of the states. A new report notes that while some states have dropped the Core or revised and renamed it, the majority of states still use it, or part of it; an Abt Associates analysis found that of the 46 states that originally adopted CCSS in whole or in part, eight states have officially repealed or withdrawn, 21 states have finalized revisions or have revision processes underway, and 17 states have not yet made any changes.

That didn’t stop Betsy DeVos, the Michigan billionaire whom the president-elect tapped to serve as education secretary, from making the same pledge that Trump did. Appearing with Trump at one of his “thank you to voters” rallies, 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.

What makes this somewhat surprising was that DeVos had been thought of as a Core supporter. She was once head of the board of trustees of the Great Lakes Education Project, a strong Core supporter, and she is a very close ally of Jeb Bush’s. DeVos has been on the board of his Core-supporting Foundation for Education Excellence. But after being nominated, she came out against the Core.

At DeVos’s Senate committee confirmation hearing on Tuesday, Jan. 17, she didn’t mention the Core in her opening testimony. The closest she came was saying that “parents no longer believe that a one-size-fits-all model of learning meets the needs of every child” — as if parents ever actually did believe that.

And no senator asked her to reconcile her seeming past support for it with her statement that she would get rid of it — or to expand on her plans for the Core.

Democrats bored in a number of important topics, exposing DeVos’s apparent lack of understanding of some basic education topics, such as the federal law that protects the education rights of students with disabilities. They asked her about her political donations, conversion therapy for gays, whether she understood the debate about how to measure student achievement, whether guns should be in schools (she said, now famously, perhaps to protect against grizzly bears), and more.

It is true that there wasn’t enough time allowed at the hearing to ask her about every hot education topic. But the Common Core is one you would have expected to come up. And it never did.