Congress is set to rewrite the laws governing the nation's schools this year, and the Common Core might turn into a history lesson.
The Obama administration has quietly supported the national standards for students in kindergarten through high school, developed with the support of the Gates Foundation by a group of state education officials. Only a handful of states have refused to adopt the Core or have abandoned it, despite widespread frustration with the standards among conservatives and educators.
That could change with legislation released Tuesday by Sen. Lamar Alexander (R-Tenn.), the new chairman of the Senate's education committee. In a rebuke to the administration, Alexander's bill implies that Obama's Education Department has overstepped its authority and gives states more freedom to choose their own academic standards, among other things.
"The department has become, in effect, a national school board," Alexander said on the Senate floor Tuesday.
Alexander still has to win enough Democratic votes to break a filibuster and persuade Obama to sign the bill -- a tall order. The business lobby supports the Common Core, along with many of the other policies that impose sanctions on schools whose students fall short that are weakened in Alexander's bill, so many moderate Republicans may be reluctant to support it. Education Secretary Arne Duncan said Monday that any bill must require annual testing, which is not mandatory in one of two drafts that Alexander's office released for discussion. If that is the version that Congress passes, Obama might not sign it.
All the same, observers agree a new bill is likelier to succeed this year, now that Republicans have taken full control of Congress, than at any point in recent history. What Alexander's legislation would mean for the Common Core remains to be seen.
Andrew Rotherham, one of the founders of the education consultancy Bellwether Education Partners, warned that Alexander's bill would abandon the goals of the Common Core -- an agreement among states about the goals of public education, and an honest accounting about whether all children are getting an equal opportunity to achieve them.
"This is basically a way to make sure we don't have a common definition," Rotherham said. "Some kids are going to get a really challenging and ambitious set of standards, and other kids are going to fall through the cracks."
Tom Loveless, a scholar at the Brookings Institution, found that students in states that adopt more rigorous academic standards did not perform any better on tests than students in other states. The differences between states are minor compared to the much larger gaps between the best and the worst schools in any one state, which a simple change in standards wouldn't do much to reduce, Loveless argued.
Rotherham, however, cited these findings as evidence that Washington must hold state educational systems to their standards and compare schools between states, so that the standards don't simply become empty aspirations. Even if particular states set a high bar in isolation, their students won't benefit, he said.
At least one supporter of the Core is optimistic -- Michael Petrilli, the president of the Thomas B. Fordham Institute, which is an educational think tank. He argued that the standards have always had widespread support among state officials, and predicted that many states would stick to the Common Core, even without the federal government's encouragement. "These really were standards that were adopted at the state level," Petrilli said.
Petrilli said he agrees with Alexander that Obama and Education Secretary Arne Duncan have gone too far in some respects. Still, he said, accusing the administration of overreach has been a convenient way for critics of the Core to rally the opposition, and that the bill would eliminate that talking point. "I don't think that is going to change policy on the state level necessarily, but I do think that might change the debate in a healthy way," Petrilli said.
The Home School Legal Defense Association's William Estrada, whose group opposes the Common Core, said Alexander's bill does not go far enough in constraining the federal government's authority over education, but he also said that many states would choose to retain the Core in any case.
"At the end of the day, this is going to become a battle in the state legislatures, as it should, for the states to decide what’s best for them," he said.
The result would be a compromise that satisfies no one. A number of states could keep the Core, frustrating those parents and teachers who think the standards are misguided, while proponents would have to give up on what they've been working for: a genuinely national set of criteria by which to reliably compare schools and district across state lines.