If you have children in South Carolina public schools, you’ve probably heard the term “Common Core” several times by now. It’s the name for a nationalized set of academic standards to which South Carolina public schools are now required to conform.
Did you vote for Common Core? Did you have any say in it at all? No, you didn’t.
Before anyone knew anything about Common Core, then-Gov. Mark Sanford and Education Superintendent Jim Rex signed a memorandum of understanding with the Council of Chief State School Officers and the National Governors Association that committed the state to implementing Common Core standards within three years. Then, in 2010, the Education Oversight Committee (EOC) and the State Board of Education voted to adopt the standards. These boards consist of members appointed by a mixture of executive officials and legislators, and include a mixture of (unelected) representatives of the business and education fields. So, despite having no real input from parents, Common Core is almost fully implemented. Its supporters, meanwhile, justify this dramatic and uncontested policy change with three basic arguments.
First, they argue that Common Core is a state program, not a federal one. While Common Core isn’t formally administered by the federal government, it abounds with federal money — and where federal money is, there also is federal control. (Think, for example, of the way federal highway funds are contingent on maintaining the drinking age at 21.) In the case of Common Core, federal Race to the Top grants are explicitly conditioned on the adoption of a set of standards that — coincidentally enough — happen to look exactly like Common Core. Several local governments in South Carolina are applying for Race to the Top funds, and indeed the Charleston County School District has already received them.
The same is true of No Child Left Behind money, of which South Carolina receives hundreds of millions every year. The federal government will allow the state “waivers” on some of the law’s most draconian requirements — so long as we adopt Common Core.
Or consider federally funded standardized tests. In September 2010, the federal government awarded $362 million to be divided between two state consortia to formulate assessments for Common Core standards. That year, Gov. Sanford signed a memorandum of understanding committing South Carolina to use the assessments of one of those consortia, Smarter Balanced. The fact that the entities developing the content of Common Core are themselves receiving hundreds of millions in federal funds guarantees that Washington will sooner or later exercise substantial control over school curricula in South Carolina.
That brings us to the second argument made by Common Core’s supporters, namely that it’s merely a set of “standards,” not a “curriculum.” That’s technically true, but don’t be misled by the distinction. Under Common Core, assessments, homework assignments, lesson plans, and the curriculum itself must all be Common Core-aligned. The fact that a textbook isn’t labeled “Common Core” doesn’t mean it wasn’t created to conform to Common Core standards.
And third, it’s frequently said of Common Core that it will give states control over their own standards. Not true. In fact, the memorandum of understanding explicitly says that signatory states must ensure that Common Core material “represents at least 85 percent of the state’s standards in English language arts and mathematics.” Moreover, assuming the EOC agrees to use Smarter Balanced, South Carolina will have to abide by all decisions regarding assessments and have only one vote in a group of twenty-something other states in the decision-making process.
The real problem with Common Core, however, isn’t so much that it imposes on South Carolinians a curriculum dominated by a liberal/progressive worldview (although in my view it does — as a look through Common Core-aligned lesson plans demonstrates). The real problem with Common Core, rather, is that once it’s implemented, there’s nothing South Carolina parents or teachers or school officials or lawmakers can do about it. The state will have signed away its sovereignty over education to … well, to whom? Answer: a conglomeration of federal education bureaucrats, other states’ education bureaucrats, representatives from groups like the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation (the prime mover behind Common Core), and a variety of other unelected officials outside South Carolina.
Can it be stopped? Perhaps, but it may take more than the General Assembly passing a law. In 1998 the legislature transferred all power over standards and assessments to the Education Oversight Committee and State Board of Education. To stop the outsourcing of power over our own education system, that authority will probably have to be removed from these unaccountable boards and placed with either the legislature or, preferably, one state elected official who is directly accountable to the people — either the governor or the education superintendent.
A decision this momentous ought to rest with South Carolinians. And no one else.
Dillon Jones is a policy analyst for the South Carolina Policy Council. This op-ed ran originally in the Charleston Post & Courier on Sept. 27. Permission has been granted by the editors to reprint.