Can Common Core Be Stopped?


Opponents of Common Core, the nationalized set of academic standards currently being imposed on South Carolina public schools, are wondering how to stop it – or indeed if it’s too late to stop it. While four states refused to implement these standards in the first place, some states who originally agreed to these standards are trying to change course.

Since no state has the same laws as another, the processes of implementing and/or rejecting educational standards and assessments differ widely. What about South Carolina?

While it may be possible for South Carolina to reject Common Core before its implementation, there are substantial barriers to doing so. It’s not impossible, however, and some of the tools to combat implementation can be found, ironically, in the very documents in which South Carolina gave away its educational sovereignty in the first place.

Remove Powers of Boards

The decisions over South Carolina’s education standards and tests, and by proxy its broad curriculum for teachers, are made by two unaccountable boards: the Education Oversight Committee (EOC) and State Board of Education. In a fashion typical of South Carolina’s governmental structure, these two practically anonymous boards, consisting of a hodgepodge of elected and unelected officials, made the momentous decision (in 2010) to approve Common Core standards.

Like the EOC and Board of Education, which make executive decisions on behalf of the state, there are scores of boards whose appointments are controlled by the legislature. If decisions over state education are supposed to be made by the executive branch, then the boards that make these decisions should be appointed by someone who is accountable to voters statewide – the governor. Moreover, the State Superintendent of Education, who is still currently elected statewide, sits on the EOC but doesn’t even have a vote. Since he is voted on statewide, he can be justly held accountable to voters and should be given some power over education decisions in the state – including decisions over standards and assessments.

The reality, however, is that these two key statewide elected officials, who can be swayed by the voices of voters – the governor and the superintendent – have no power to stop Common Core even though they oppose it. Unless the power over these decisions is given to an accountable entity in the executive branch, the only way Common Core could be rejected is if the two boards voted to change standards. And since the members of these boards aren’t accountable to the public, they’re unlikely to change their minds at this point.

How did these two boards get this power in the first place? In 1998, the legislature passed the Education Accountability Act, which gave the power to determine standards and assessments across the state to these boards. In 2014 lawmakers are sure to introduce and possibly debate bills forcing the EOC and Board to reject Common Core, but it’s unclear what legal authority the General Assembly has to force this decision.

In any case, however, it’s hardly an example of good policy for the General Assembly to direct state boards to do things the General Assembly itself gave the boards power to do. If the legislature believes that power over standards and assessments should be held by the legislature, then just directing the boards to reject Common Core doesn’t do enough to address the larger problem. If the legislature wants that power, it should repeal the law it passed in 1998 and make it specifically clear that the legislature now has that power.

The legislature needs to make a choice: Either give the power over standards and assessments fully to the executive branch, or to the legislative branch. Leaving such vastly consequential decision in the hands of boards few South Carolinians have even heard of, however, should be out of the question.

Memorandum May Hold Key

Perhaps even less accountable to voters are Memoranda of Understanding and Memoranda of Agreement – signed agreements between two parties that, in some cases, can be legally binding. Prior to any real public knowledge or debate on the issue of Common Core, and before the State Board of Education even voted to approve the standards, then-Governor Mark Sanford and Superintendent Jim Rex signed this Memorandum of Agreement with the Council of Chief State School Officers (CCSSO) and National Governors Association Center for Best Practices (NGA). It committed South Carolina to adopting Common Core standards within three years.

For anyone who still says Common Core is nothing but a “state-led” effort in which states still have total control over their standards, curriculum, and assessments, this actual document that committed us to Common Core refutes that argument. Here are some key lines from the memorandum:

With the adoption of this common core, participating states will be able to … align textbooks, digital media, and curricula to the internationally benchmarked standards.

CCSSO and the NGA will create an expert validation group that will serve several purposes, including validating end-of-course expectations, providing leadership for the development of K-12 standards, and certifying state adoption of the common core. [In other words, decisions over the standards we adopt will no longer be made in South Carolina.]

States that choose to align their standards to the common core standards agree to ensure that the common core represents at least 85 percent of the state’s standards in English language arts and mathematics. [Leaving SC with control over no more than 15 percent of its standards]

In particular, the federal government can provide key financial support for this effort in developing a common core of state standards and in moving toward common assessments…

(The entire final section of the memorandum is actually called “Federal Role.”)

In June of 2010, Sanford, Rex, and then-President of the State Board of Education Tim Moore signed another memorandum – a Memorandum of Understanding (which was later re-signed by Governor Haley and Superintendent Zais) with federally funded SMARTER Balanced Assessment Consortium, which committed the state of South Carolina to join this consortium of states and use its assessments aligned with Common Core standards. The memorandum was signed over a year and a half before the State Board even voted to use the consortium, and the EOC has yet to vote to adopt SMARTER Balanced assessments as our state’s Common Core standardized tests.

According to the memorandum, the Consortium will develop a “Comprehensive Assessment System that will be grounded in a thoughtfully integrated learning system of standards, curriculum, assessment, instruction and teacher development that will inform decision making by including formative strategies, interim assessments, and summative assessments.” Moreover, the Consortium will create “on-demand and curriculum-embedded assessments.” And by signing the memorandum, South Carolina agrees to, among many mandates, do the following:

  • “Adhere to the governance as outlined in this document.” (The convoluted decision-making power structure can be seen on page 11 of the memorandum – South Carolina gets very little say in what is in these assessments.)
  • “Agree to support the decisions of the Consortium.”
  • “Agree to follow agreed-upon timelines.”
  • “Identify and implement a plan to address barriers in State law, statute, regulation, or policy to implementing the proposed assessment system and to addressing any such barriers prior to full implementation of the summative assessment components of the system.” (This disturbing mandate forces South Carolina to actually change its own laws in order to ensure the state can give away power over assessment creation.)

The text of the documents makes it crystal clear: By agreeing to use SMARTER Balanced, South Carolina would be losing even more of its sovereignty by giving away the power of making assessments for its students to this federally funded, multi-state “consortium.”

Here’s another obstacle to rejecting Common Core: these memoranda may need to be rejected or nullified. But while they provide us with a striking example of just how easily our state’s educational sovereignty (and sovereignty in general) can be given up – away from the public eye, with the stroke of a pen – the final section of our SMARTER Balanced memorandum may provide the tools to reject the use of its Common Core assessments.

In accordance with the mandate requiring the state to remove the barriers in state law, regulation, etc., that would make implementation problematic, the last part of the memorandum includes a chart (beginning on page 14) that lists the specific barriers, the governing bodies with authority to remove the barriers, and timelines to remove the barriers. These are the barriers listed:

  • The State Board of Education and the EOC have not adopted the Common Core State Standards.
  • Before committing funds or administering a field test or the assessment system, the state will take affirmative action to remain in the consortium.
  • Current legislation is specific and would have to be rewritten to allow for administration of the consortium assessment system.
  • According to state law, EOC must review test items and item data, recommend actions or modifications, and approve assessment programs following the first statewide field test.
  • Districts will need funds for computers, infrastructure, and training to support online administration for all students.
  • Potential conflicts between lead procurement state’s (State of Washington) procurement laws and South Carolina’s procurement laws, conflicts that would prevent South Carolina’s full participation.
  • Unknown contents of lead procurement state’s solicitation, including terms and conditions.

While some of these barriers may have already been addressed (like the State Board and EOC adopting Common Core), it appears that some of these legal barriers may still be in place – which could be why the EOC has yet to formally adopt SMARTER Balanced tests. (The legislature may have yet to remove some of these barriers.) Despite unaddressed legal conflicts, there’s still a good chance the EOC could approve the consortium assessments. Both lawmakers and EOC members may be unaware that these barriers (and these memoranda in general) even exist. As a practical matter, therefore, they may be simply ignored, and the EOC will move forward with SMARTER Balanced without impediment.

To be clear, rejecting SMARTER Balanced would not mean automatically rejecting Common Core as a whole, but it could put a speed bump in the way of implementing Common Core and give more time for state officials, lawmakers, and voters more time to consider the implications of ceding state sovereignty in K-12 education.

To sum up: If Common Core is to be rejected, there are broader accountability issues that must be tackled before, or at least in tandem with, rejecting these nationalized standards. While unfortunately it may not be as easy as passing one “reject Common Core bill,” there is still time for state officials, lawmakers, and voters to get more informed on these issues and eventually (and effectively) make important changes to our education accountability structure that will allow for real rejection of Common Core.

But unless that happens, a new state policy will be put in place: Education without Representation.

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