Charlie Harper: Education vs. political ignorance

May 14, 2013 

It is no longer polite to talk about the Common Core curriculum in many conservative circles. Just as any proposal for immigration reform is immediately labeled "amnesty," any talk of setting a national standard so that K-12 education can be portable as students move around the country or attend colleges out of state is now labeled a "federal takeover of education."

When discussing Common Core do not bring up that compliance is voluntary. Please omit the fact that it was largely based on Georgia's newly adopted curriculum. Don't dare bring up the fact that former Governors Sonny Perdue, Jeb Bush of Florida and Mitch Daniels of Indiana, and Governor Bobby Jindal of Louisiana, championed the initiative upon its rollout, as was done by Jay Bookman in a recent Atlanta Journal-Constitution Op-Ed. The fact this issue was once a Republican initiative for states to improve their education systems is now lost to the fact that it is being pushed by a Democratic president.

Much like health care exchanges prior to Obamacare, the party of the president in the White House swings a pendulum on which programs are considered conservative and which are lib'rul Trojan horses. With President Obama now over the Department of Education, the Common Core curriculum is to some the embodiment of anything from asserting progressive reeducation camps to instituting Sharia Law.

Yes, these are actual charges made by opponents to Georgia's adoption of national standards for math and English curriculum standards. Note that a standard for social studies does not exist, and that science standards are open for public comment but have neither been finalized nor adopted.

Pity Dr. John Barge, Georgia's state school superintendent, who appeared before the Cobb GOP a couple of Saturday's ago to defend his agency's adoption of the curriculum -- though he was quick to note that happened before his tenure. With the tone of the many activists in the room -- many from places far away from Cobb -- Barge's defense quickly turned to a message to call state school board members and legislators if they didn't like it and wanted it revoked.

And yet, for those listening to his actual words to engage in dialogue, the issue of Common Core isn't as black and white as those who see it as this week's poster child for federal intrusion would have it seem. After all, state participation is voluntary and Barge himself noted that the five states which have not adopted it have not lost any federal funding. States have flexibility in adopting the core and altering it to meet local needs. And, as occurs in Georgia, entire school systems have applied for and been granted charter status which allows even more flexibility from the state established standards.

And yet, those defending this national standard should also be mindful of pitfalls to this flexibility. The assessment tests required under Common Core would double Georgia's current testing budget, adding roughly another $25 million to testing costs from the current level.

Then there is the issue of "what is tested is what gets taught." Even if Georgia decides to deviate from the national norm and exercise its right to make changes, the national test used under this program would stay the same. Thus, teachers are likely to teach toward the "national" curriculum than to Georgia's modified version.

There is also the issue of federal funding. Just because no state has yet to lose funding doesn't mean Congress, the Department of Education or the president couldn't initiate this in the future. The matter of "race to the top" dollars and other carrots that the federal government uses from time to time to "encourage" conformity adds to this concern. After enough dollars become involved, flexibility often only exists as a stated illusion.

These issues deserve a high-minded debate. After all, making sure students who graduate from Georgia's K-12 schools are prepared with an education that is at least as good if not better than their peers in any other state is a worthy goal. Preserving the state's and county's prerogative for local control is an equally important concern. How best to balance these ideals is how the debate should be framed.

But instead, those who are paranoid and loud have filled the vacuum left when too many leaders appear to be backing away from an initiative championed here just three years ago. Back when it was a Republican initiative -- but before it became associated with a liberal president. And that, unfortunately, appears to have ended the debate over Common Core in Georgia before it ever even started.

Charlie Harper, author and editor of the Peach Pundit blog, writes on Georgia politics and government; www.peachpundit.com.

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