Arne Duncan, once every good conservative’s favorite Obama cabinet member and the subject of derision from teacher-union leaders everywhere, has recently made enemies where he once had friends.
Partly, it’s his tone: in November, he infamously derided some Common Core opponents as “white suburban moms” unnecessarily upset about test scores. But more than rhetoric, it has been the secretary’s policies that have made things difficult for education reformers.
Like many Obama administration officials, Secretary Duncan seems unable to grasp the idea that just because a policy is worth supporting, doesn’t mean Washington should be driving it.
The Common Core State Standards are a perfect example of this phenomenon. The standards were originally developed by the National Governors Association and the Council of Chief State School Officers under a process that was well underway before President Obama even took office.
If the administration had allowed that process to continue uninterrupted, it is doubtful there would be near as many objections at all to the Common Core today.
After all, when the Fordham Institute reviewed each states’ standards and compared them with the Common Core, the new benchmarks looked quite good—better, in fact, than three-quarters of the standards already in place.
Left to their own devices, states would have compared their options, and most would have made the right decision: to upgrade in order to better prepare students for college or a family-supporting job. After all, how could the idea that students learn basic math or study great works of American literature possibly be controversial?
The Obama administration found a way: politicizing the standards via its Race to the Top initiative. As a result, many state boards of education adopted the standards too swiftly and without enough time for input.
States generally consulted with educators, experts, and leaders of state universities, but they did not always get consent for such a move from state legislators or average citizens. (Of course, state standards have always been the province of boards of education, not lawmakers.)
But now the debate has become red hot, and conservatives are forwarding concerns, both legitimate and not.
In the legitimate category: Do the standards identify the right knowledge and skills for students to master in order to be college and career ready? And why can’t the Obama administration back off and let states manage their own affairs (as many of us have urged)?
But some critiques are flat-out unfair. For example, the issue of “liberal indoctrination” has been raised in multiple corners.
This is wrong on two counts.
First, liberal indoctrination predates the Common Core; it’s been going on forever. And second, these particular standards (which, by the way, don’t prescribe textbooks, homework, or even curriculum) are neutral on just about every controversial political issue imaginable.
Don’t believe me? Read the standards yourself.
Others claim that these standards will lead to an intrusion of children’s privacy, despite a few important facts:
1. The Common Core don’t say anything at all about data or require any particular set of data collection, period.
2. Despite the claims of some, including on this site, states simply do not currently, and will not in the future, collect data on sensitive topics like religion or politics,
3. Data collection is up to states -- and if you are uncomfortable with the current protections afforded by your state, you should encourage your state lawmakers to do more.
But both of these issues are entirely unrelated to the Common Core. In fact, if every state changed or removed the Common Core tomorrow (they could but shouldn’t), nothing would change regarding “indoctrination” or data privacy.
Conservatives and others have a responsibility to speak out and let their local and state leaders know (whether in a Common Core state or not) that they need to make prudent decisions that will protect the right of students to think freely and have their personal data secured.
Members of Congress must also be encouraged to hold Arne Duncan and the Obama administration accountable when they try to step into what should be state jurisdiction.
In short, education is an important issue, and it’s certainly a good thing that many conservatives have begun paying more attention to it. But it’s important, too, that we focus at the local, state, and federal level on policies that will truly make a difference for children.
Michael Brickman is national policy director of the Thomas B. Fordham Institute, a right-of-center education policy think tank, and Governor Scott Walker's former education policy adviser.