Will Common Core Eclipse School Choice?
How does Common Core affect the school choice movement? The question came up at a recent school choice conference in Milwaukee, Wisconsin sponsored by the Franklin Center for Government and Public Integrity (parent organization of Watchdog Wire for whom I write). Common Core touches every aspect of education from what students learn to what teachers teach to federal funding of public schools and foundational grants to private schools. 'School choice', a term to describe the promotion of public charters and vouchers to traditional public school users with low incomes, can only change where students go, not what they are taught.
The school choice movement came about as an antidote to union control over public schools which had caused stagnation of a wide achievement gap between poor students and the middle and upper classes. Options like voucher programs, charter schools and private foundation education lotteries have been around for a long time; and they have all been working toward giving poor families a choice where to send their kids. More and more states have increased the number of charters and have passed legislation allowing vouchers (in North Carolina, as of August 2014, poor students who qualify can receive $4,200 per person to go to the school of their choice).
As time went on, more and more organizations got involved, so school choice has now become a bipartisan effort to help families find different ways to educate their children. Leading the way in school choice today are organizations like ALEC (American Legislative Exchange Council), Friedman Foundation, Thomas B. Fordham Institute, Foundation for Excellence and Democrats for Education Reform.
Common Core and school choice have grown up together under the banner of education reform. It's interesting to note that many of the major marketers of school choice are also advocates of Common Core. The Thomas B. Fordham Institute, with representation at the Wisconsin conference, states that parental choice and standards-based education go hand-in-hand. Much to the shock of anti-Common Core folks, they say "Common Core is not a national curriculum-the standards were written by governors and local education officials, and they were adopted by each state independently."
Right leaning nonprofits, think tanks and individual parents and educators have attempted to debunk this rhetoric. Education producers of textbooks and curricula are calling their materials and courses 'Common Core Math' and 'Common Core ELA'. If Common Core is only a set of standards, why are lesson plans being created to comply with 'exemplars' from Common Core mapping projects?
Also in Milwaukee on the same panel as the Fordham Institute's rep, was Jim Bender, president of School Choice Wisconsin and former chief of staff for Republican Assembly leader Jeff Fitzgerald. He said his organization's task is to act as an "objective voice around education reform." He tries to show what is "actually going on in the program and what is not going on." Bender works with private schools and starts with what they tell him they need which in turn informs his "legislative agenda and policy goals."
When asked about Common Core as putting an ineffective curriculum in the hands of highly effective teachers, Bender said, "I'm not a fan of it [CC], it's a legitimate concern." He also offered what he thinks is the ultimate solution to our public and private school woes: "the biggest deficiency in public/private education" is the lack of "high level intense school leaders who will find success whatever you throw at them."
Bender went on to say the "attention now getting applied to Common Core, as opposed to two years ago, will have an effect." He's concerned from an accountability standpoint and "how much the government can force us to do." But he's realistic when he says that all assessments are "migrating toward the Common Core Standards."
David Coleman, one of the non-educator creators of Common Core and now president of the College Board, has promised the SATs will be Common Core aligned. What is more, anyone opting out of Common Core will have very few options when testing is aligned; leaving them with little choice.
What would happen if, in five or ten years, Common Core standards caused the school choice movement to become irrelevant? The hard won fight for reducing the influence of unions on public schools and the relief of poor parents in acquiring a decent education for their kids may go by the wayside if the steamroller of national standards continues on its way.
Ann Kane is editor of Watchdog Wire North Carolina, a site for citizen journalists. Email her at firstname.lastname@example.org