Matthew Stokes: Marsh’s Common Core gambit

Matthew Stokes: Marsh’s Common Core gambit

By MATTHEW STOKES, Alabama Daily News Columnist

Once the Alabama Legislature ended its special session after the signing of new gas tax and infrastructure legislation, one could have been forgiven for thinking things might quiet down in Montgomery.

One would also be mistaken.  

State Senator Del Marsh, a leader among Republicans, an astute politician, and a possible candidate for the United States Senate, started the week with a high level of intensity when he proposed repealing the state’s Common Core standards for K-12 education.  This was a bold move; many observers had expected movement on a lottery and possibly even Medicare expansion, but it was a surprise to see much of the week dominated by changes to the state’s educational curriculum.

Common Core has been an odd burr in the side of Republicans for several years.  It was rejected by many Republicans during the Tea Party’s halcyon days as a top-down initiative that would severely limit the capacity of states to create their own educational standards.  While I can sympathize with the federalist tendency at work in this criticism, the objection overlooked two points. First, Common Core was always voluntary and it was initially supported by Republican leaders like former Florida Governor Jeb Bush and many within the conservative education reform movement.  Secondly, the effort to create standards that follow students across state lines is entirely reasonable. Indeed, it might even be necessary in today’s globally-competitive environment.

The simple fact is that Americans are more mobile than ever before.  Students, families, and employers are not helped when educational standards – and the assessment practices that fit within them – shift across state lines.  Consistency in this area should be a feature, not a bug. The greater the disparity between standards in each state, the more companies and employees will find it harder to expand and grow in the marketplace.  It will always be necessary for vocational training to shift depending on the key industries within a state, but it only makes sense for states to cooperate with one another to create high quality educational standards.  

Marsh’s efforts to repeal Common Core have been met with broad support from Republicans.  The argument in favor of repeal does not rest so much on federalism as it does on pragmatism.  Common Core, it is argued, does not work. Yet Alabama has only operated under Common Core for six years.  While that may be enough time properly evaluate a college football coach, it is hardly enough time to evaluate the effectiveness of educational standards on a large body of students.  There are literally dozens of considerations at work here, none of which are apparent in Senator Marsh’s argument. Were all school systems, from the superintendent all the way down to local principals, committed to the standards?  Were teachers properly trained and held accountable? Was professional development properly funded and implemented?

These questions could go on in this vein, and that is without ever exploring the changes in test scores or college achievement.  Then there is the question of how employers feel about potential changes. Lee Roop of al.com offered some insight on this point when he noted that three retired generals in the rapidly-growing Huntsville area have expressed serious reservations over repealing Common Core.

If Marsh hopes to gain political traction for a potential Senate bid, it would seem he is relying on populist frustration among parents to back his play.  It is an understandable gamble. It is not hard to find the parent of an elementary school student who has not been intensely frustrated by the changes brought by Common Core.  Simply put, math is not taught the way it once was. Yet in time, it seems that students are able to do more and varied things with the subject at a much earlier age. There is another personal angle that Marsh be overlooking, particularly among voters in highly mobile areas.   It is becoming common to encounter students who have recently arrived in Alabama and registered for school, only to find that they were several steps ahead in mathematics in their former state. It was reasonable to hope that Common Core might help mitigate this disparity over time.

Then there is the question of who should control the state’s educational curriculum.  While Alabama eduction officials and advocates were scrambling to make sense of Marsh’s proposal and score key amendments, a meaningful provision to the bill slipped in with little fanfare. Marsh’s bill charges the State Board of Education to adopt new standards “pursuant to the Alabama Administrative Procedures Act.” In other words, any standards the Board adopted would be subject to review by the Alabama Legislature. Some see this as a check on a process lacking much oversight and accountability, while others see it as an unnecessary overreach from the Legislature into an already-complicated process. Education policy is complex, and it takes time, commitment, and resources to truly understand it.  Overwhelmed with varying priorities, the Legislature is often lacking all three.

Two arguments must be made in Marsh’s defense.  First, the Alabama Board of Education has done a woeful job of managing the state’s education system over the last several years. Sure, there have been some leadership problems that have made the problem worse, but squabbling from the state board has frustrated lawmakers on both sides of the Common Core debate. Indeed, it was an indecisive board that led Gov. Kay Ivey and State Superintendent Eric Mackey to cancel a vote on a new Math course of study that could have turned the page on some of the standards controversy.  Second, voters – and parents, in particular – deserve some degree of recourse with their children’s education. State officials must be held accountable, though a biannual purging of the state board of education would be counterproductive.

Yet, Marsh’s proposal, taken in haste for a politician who is typically astute and calculated, treats education policy as a political football.  The education of Alabama’s young people is no game, and legislators should call timeout before once again rewriting the rules.