Published June 9, 2014
When the story of the Common Core is finally told, it’s going to be ugly. It’s going to show how the sponsors of the Common Core made a mockery of the Constitution and the democratic process. It’s going to show how the Obama administration pressed a completely untested reform on the states, evading public debate at both the federal and state levels. It’s going to show how a deliberative process that ought to have taken years was compressed into a matter of months. It’s going to show how legitimate philanthropic funding for an experimental education reform morphed into a gross abuse of democracy. It’s going to show how the Obama Education Department intentionally obscured the full extent of its pressure on the states, even as it effectively federalized the nation’s education system. It’s going to show how Common Core is turning the choice of private — especially Catholic — education into no choice at all.
A good part of this story was told by Lyndsey Layton in yesterday’s front-page, above-the-fold Washington Post article on Bill Gates and the Common Core. Many will point to a pro–Common Core bias at points in this piece. The oddest moment comes when Layton appears to dismiss complaints about federal intrusion by claiming that the impetus for Common Core came from the states. In truth, her own account shows that Common Core wasn’t “state led,” it was “Gates led.” That is, serious public consideration of the Common Core at the state level was never in play. Cash-starved state bureaucracies simply responded to lavishly funded offers from the Gates Foundation and the Obama administration. This was not a campaign to educate America’s voters, it was an attempt to evade them.
Quibbles aside, the thrust of Layton’s account is devastating for the Common Core. This is the story that opponents of the Common Core have been telling for some time, only to see it dismissed as a crazy conspiracy theory. It is a story of vast and very arguably unconstitutional changes made to America’s education system, often without a single vote by an elected lawmaker. It is a story of standards adopted largely unseen — sometimes before the standards themselves were finalized — and with no public debate. It is the story of how a private foundation working hand in glove with the Obama administration made an end-run around democracy and the law.
Bill Gates reportedly sees himself as an apolitical technocrat. At a couple of points in Layton’s piece he refers to “gaping inequalities” between the education “suburban kids” receive and the education of “low income kids.” In Gates’s view, well-intentioned technocrats seek out ways to fight these inequalities, while everyone else is soiled by politics.
What Gates doesn’t say is that Common Core tries to overcome inequality by dumbing down all state standards to a mediocre national mean. The misguided notion of social justice that stands behind the Common Core leads to the search for a cheap shortcut. Since tough tests and high standards create “disparities” between students, a false equality is sought via dumbing down. Admission to colleges will begin to equalize under Common Core, not because of genuine parity but through the suppression of real measures of educational achievement. Gates’s view isn’t “technocratic,” it is thoroughly political—and thoroughly misguided. Before the top-flight standards in Massachusetts were killed off by Common Core, for example, test scores of minority students were rising at a higher rate than those of whites. Everyone benefits when quality comes first.
Gates sends his children to private schools that don’t use Common Core. He says he wants his children to know “everything in the standards and beyond.” Yet by forcing all state standards down to a mediocre mean, Gates has made it vastly harder for ordinary American kids to get where he wants his own children to go.
The misguided notion of social justice that stands behind the Common Core excuses in the minds of its advocates evasion, manipulation, and violation of the most basic constitutional and democratic principles. When you fancy yourself a well-intentioned technocrat—a man above politics—your conscience is untroubled by end-runs around silly little things like the consent of the governed. At any rate, the truth about the Common Core is beginning to surface, and it’s already plenty ugly.
Education historian Diane Ravitch, who informally leads the left-leaning wing of those who oppose the Common Core, has responded to Layton’s piece by calling for a congressional investigation of the ties between the Gates Foundation and the Obama Education Department, and of the role of both in imposing Common Core on the states.
I may not always share Ravitch’s take on Common Core — although often I do — but I agree with her that a congressional investigation is now in order. Several laws prohibit the federal Department of Education from directing, supervising, or controlling programs of instruction in state or local school systems. By coordinating with the Gates Foundation, and by other means as well, the Obama department of education appears to have violated that prohibition. Congress is obliged to investigate.