As your editor expected, Tuesday’s commentary on the conspiracy-theorizing by opponents of Common Core reading and math standards over the role of the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation garnered heated response. Not just in the comments. Some were annoyed at what they perceived to be my characterization that only movement conservatives and some conservative reformers were among the opponents of Common Core; I have long ago made clear that there nearly as many traditionalists and reformers — as well as progressives, liberals, movement conservatives and others outside of education — who oppose the standards as there are supporters within all those camps. But I don’t expect much from traditionalists opposed to Common Core; it just confirms my view that they could care less about the futures of poor and minority children (and, for that matter, all children). Movement conservatives and conservative reformers? That is a different story. When you know better, you are also supposed to do better. Period.
Others were disappointed that I didn’t support their side of the debate over the standards. Oh well. As I always make clear, my role as an editor, as an advocate, and an intellectually honest person is to weigh a position carefully and take whichever side I think is right — especially if it helps all children succeed in school and in life. I deal with allies and opponents in a forthright manner, criticizing them when they deserve it. For that, I will never ever apologize.
But for most critics of this commentary — including the inestimable Joy Pullmann of Heartlander, whose piece spurred it — their complaint is that your editor fails to get how allegedly undemocratic states (at the behest of Gates Foundation) have been in adopting Common Core. As far as these Common Core foes are concerned, Gates Foundation shouldn’t be conducting its advocacy in a “black box”, and in fact, should be subjected to the same level of transparency as government agencies. They still continue to argue that Gates Foundation and states adopting Common Core did so in an undemocratic manner.
Let’s start with the question of whether philanthropists such as Gates Foundation should be subjected to the same level of transparency as government agencies? This depends on what they are doing. If we are talking about a nonprofit operating public charter schools, which are financed by taxpayer dollars, they should be subjected to such levels of transparency and disclosure because they are providing a public service on behalf of taxpayers. But it is a different story for philanthropies such as Gates Foundation, which doesn’t use any taxpayer dollars for its operations. Certainly the advocacy work of nonprofits Gates Foundation finances — and even any advocacy and lobbying the foundation does on its own — should be public knowledge. Which they are. Nonprofits and philanthropies are required under federal law to file disclosures if some of their staffers spend more than 20 percent of their time influencing legislation; this is also true in some states such as Connecticut. The fact that government agencies must disclose their activities — including meetings with nonprofits and philanthropies — also means that Gates Foundation is subject to more disclosure than many privately-held companies. And not to get into any defense of Gates Foundation itself, the organization provides plenty of disclosure on its own.
[The fact that Pullmann garnered no response from Gates Foundation’s public relations staff during her reporting is only indicative of whether they decided Heartlander and sister publication School Reform News were worthy of their time. As someone who has (and continues to sit) on both sides, I would always stress offering a response regardless of the veracity of the questions being raised. But I don’t counsel Gates Foundation on public relations, and in any case, like public companies, they have no obligation to answer any reporter. Also, given the penchant of most foundations to say absolutely nothing public or private about their activities, the fact that Gates Foundation offers some responses in some form at all is actually quite refreshing. Try asking the Lilly Endowment, another big philanthropic player, any questions about, say, its past funding to the Reason Foundation, and I guarantee you that they will say absolutely nothing.]
Certainly one can understand the concerns about any major organization, especially Gates Foundation, advocating for policies and practices it supports. This is why lobbying disclosure rules (governing advocates) and freedom of information acts (requiring government disclosure of activities, especially those with private organizations) exist. If one wants to argue for greater disclosure of activity between nonprofits (including philanthropies) and government agencies, then they can do so. I’m not necessarily against that. But neither Gates Foundation nor any other philanthropy has an obligation to provide disclosure beyond what is expected of the average private citizen and shouldn’t. Common Core foes would be better off demanding greater disclosure from government agencies, which, unlike Gates Foundation, should do so because they are funded by taxpayers.
Meanwhile Common Cores foes have failed to offer a credible argument that Gates Foundation and states that adopted Common Core behaved undemocratically. For one, as I noted on Tuesday, Common Core standards were approved by the elected state boards of education in nine states and the District of Columbia. They were also approved by appointed state boards and superintendents in 35 other states. This matters because in a democratic republic such as the United States, voters don’t decide every single matter. Implicit in the concept of democratic republicanism is that citizens allow for elected officials to appoint officials, either serving as heads of state agencies or members of various boards in order to administer various aspects of government. In fact, this is expressed in many ways in the U.S. Constitution (with the whole matter of the president being the commander-in-chief of the military), as well as in state constitutions (such as the appointment of state education board members and the like). Also implicit in the concept of democratic republicanism is that citizens trust that elected officials will who will have the competence to make sensible decisions as well as make those decisions in a transparent manner (including hold hearings and the like).
One can quibble about the degree to which governors and legislators hand off decisions to appointees and the agencies they oversee; this is why public authorities that oversee bond-issuing activities such as the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey can prove to be so problematic. But the reality is that those appointed boards and officials are key players in the democratic process, and given the complexity of so much decision-making, their existence makes sense. In any case, this has more to do with questions about the size and reach of federal, state and local governments, a matter beyond the scope of this piece. There is definitely a lot lacking about our current state of educational governance; governors should be in charge of state education departments. But again, that’s a different discussion altogether from this one.
At the same time, the voters do have other means of overturning decisions made by those appointed agencies if they don’t think they are the best solutions. One way to do so, as Common Core foes have done in states such as Indiana, Missouri, and South Carolina, is to convince legislators — elected officials who, in some cases, also confirm appointments — to pass laws overturning the decisions of those appointees chosen by elected officials. Another is through the legal process, with judges — some elected, others appointed — required to interpret the law along the constitutional lines set out by voters as well as allowing for citizens to garner documents and other information about a decision-making process. This is why freedom of information laws, imperfect as they are, do exist. A third, as done in Indiana, is to vote out elected officials who support a political activity — especially that related to education — that voters don’t support. A fourth is to appeal to federal government when appropriate, either through advocating for congressional legislation or pursuing matters in federal courts.
Simply put, there are numerous (if not always perfect) ways for Common Core foes to oppose the adoption of the standards. Which is what they are doing to certain degrees of success. Certainly your editor disagrees with their effort and the most-defensible of their underlying arguments. He also finds it particularly interesting that Common Core foes say they want high-quality education for all children, yet fail to consider that their opposition to the standards hurts poor and minority kids as well as middle class white and Asian children in suburbia, both of which have few options — including vouchers and charter schools — to which they can avail in order to get high-quality education. The reality that choice remains illusory for four-fifths of all children in this country and especially for the kids who need strong, comprehensive college-preparatory curricula the most (and, as Dropout Nation has documented ad nauseam, are the least likely to get it in traditional districts) is more than enough reason to adopt Common Core (alongside expanding the array of choice options that can allow for a variety of curricula choices). The concern among some that decisions by states to enact Common Core go against what they consider to be local control fails to realize that under state and federal laws, local control doesn’t actually exist. State constitutions entrust state governments with the job of overseeing and providing public education, and gives them the leeway to structure it anyway they see fit so long as it fits under those respective constitutions. This fact, along with the U.S. Supreme Court’s ruling in Hunter v. Pittsburgh, has long ago established that districts are merely arms of state governments.
At the same time, Common Core foes, like traditionalists and reformers, are allowed as citizens to argue for what they believe. If they oppose the standards, they can mount efforts to abolish them if they so choose.
But are intellectually honest ways of arguing against any position. This is where Common Core foes are failing mightily. Engaging in the kind of conspiracy theorizing that would make the likes of Susan Ohanian proud, especially in light of evidence that disproves those positions, actually weakens whatever legitimate arguments they may have to offer. Given the role of outfits such as the American Principles Project in fostering these statements, it also comes off as being cynically political.