Your editor isn’t surprised by South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley’s decision yesterday to sign legislation abandoning implementation of Common Core’s reading and math standards. After all, the Republican has a re-election campaign to run, and given her below 50-percent approval ratings along with missteps such as refusing to allow a district to inform families of a tuberculosis outbreak in its schools, she needs all the support she can get from movement conservatives uninterested in education who oppose the standards.
Nor am I surprised that Common Core foes are cheering about Haley’s move, and that of Oklahoma Gov. Mary Fallin to also roll back Common Core implementation. Considering that until this week, only Indiana has ditched Common Core (and to their chagrin, replacing it with a similar, though, inferior, version), opponents of the standards such as the once-respectable Pioneer Institute and the American Principles Project need something to harrumph about.
Yet as I noted last year, the question facing Common Core foes is what do they propose to do to provide high-quality education children South Carolina and other states where the standards are being rolled back? Once again, the answer is that Common Core foes — won’t be able to rally around any. This bodes poorly for once-sensible conservative reformers at the national level such as University of Arkansas’ Jay P. Greene, Jim Stergios of Pioneer Institute, and Robert Enlow of the Milton & Rose D. Friedman Foundation who wrongly oppose the standards. This is because their preferred alternative to standards — expanding choice — will not become a reality unless Common Core and other reforms flourish on the ground.
Let’s start with a reality that Common Core foes conveniently ignore: That far too many kids are being subjected to educational abuse and neglect. This is especially true in South Carolina. Forty percent of fourth-graders in South Carolina read Below Basic on the 2013 National Assessment of Educational Progress, a mere one point decline from levels of illiteracy a decade ago; this is a far lower decline than the five percentage point decline for the nation as a whole (from 37 percent to 32 percent) and the 12-point decline in fourth-graders reading Below Basic (from 37 percent to 25 percent) in nearby Florida.
Even those stats don’t fully show how far South Carolina children have fallen behind their peers. Back in 2003, the average Palmetto State fourth-grader read half-a-grade level behind his peers in the nation and in Florida. A decade later, the average South Carolina fourth-grader reads at a full grade level behind the average American peer, and 1.5 grade levels behind a peer in the Sunshine State.
One of the underlying reasons why so many Palmetto State children are struggling academically lie with the state’s recent unwillingness to embrace systemic reform. Even before Haley’s move to roll back Common Core implementation, the state had been on the backslide. Between 2000 and 2010, South Carolina’s reading standards went from being considered one of the best in the nation to one of the worst. The Thomas B. Fordham Institute ranking them a B in 2000 (or second in the nation), to a B- in 2006 (a seventh-place ranking), to a D in 2010. The Palmetto State’s move in 2010 to implement Common Core was its acknowledgement that it had fallen far behind in improving
It wasn’t always this way. Starting with future U.S. Secretary of Education Richard Riley’s tenure as governor in the 1980s and continuing with successors Carroll Campbell Jr., and David Beasley into the 1990s, South Carolina was one of the first to embrace standards and accountability. With good results. Between 1994 and 2003, the percentage of Palmetto State fourth-graders reading Below Basic on NAEP declined by 11 percentage points (from 52 percent to 41 percent, a faster decline than the three percentage point nationwide decline in illiteracy, though lower than the 13 percentage point drop for Florida. The average Palmetto State fourth-grader went from being a grade level behind their peers nationwide in reading to trailing them by less than half-grade level.
But South Carolina politicians, especially Haley and her predecessor, the scandal-tarred Mark Sanford, have been unwilling to lead on expanding school choice, providing families with Parent Trigger laws to take over and turnaround schools in their communities, strong accountability, implementing teacher quality reforms, and building simple-yet-comprehensive school data systems. And because of their unwillingness to lead on other reforms, they also became unwilling to even build upon the successes in improving curricula standards.
Though the state has had a charter school law on the books since 1996 (and even has created a statewide district allowing for the launch of charters), charter schools serve a mere 2.7 percent of kids in the state in 2012-2013, a lower percentage than the 4.6 percent national average, according to the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools. Thanks to state law, which effectively gives traditional districts the power to decide whether charters can open within their boundaries — which is akin to allowing McDonald’s to decide whether a Wendy’s can open next door — charters account for just 4.6 percent of schools in the state, far lower than the 6.3 percent national average.
Efforts to expand other forms of choice have also fallen by the wayside. An effort last year to allow families to send their kids to traditional public schools in other districts didn’t make it out of the legislature. A series of proposals to expand the state’s picayune voucher-like tax credit plans have also been kiboshed. There is also no Parent Trigger law on the books. None of this is shocking. Like other southern states, South Carolina is home to county-wide districts that are the biggest employers in their communities and the most-powerful political players. This fact, along with the reality that legislators in the state either got their start as school board members or have relatives who work for districts, means that there is little political appetite for meaningfully expanding choice or Parent Power.
Meanwhile South Carolina has lagged on other fronts. Over the past two years, the Data Quality Campaign has dinged the Palmetto State for only meeting four of the 10 key standards for providing families, policymakers, teachers, and school leaders with high-quality data to make smart decisions. Student performance data, for example, is still not linked up with information on how children progress as adults into their careers. [Of course, as evidenced by its failure to encrypt data that included Social Security numbers, and the breach that followed, South Carolina has ways to go on data quality in all aspects of government activity.]
South Carolina has been a tad more-aggressive in addressing the woes of its ed schools, identifying at least one laggard ed school for seven years between 2002-2003 and 2010-2011. But as the National Council of Teacher Quality has pointed out in last year’s review of teacher preparation programs, only 23 percent of the state’s ed school elementary training programs provide aspiring teachers with the knowledge they need to properly instruct kids in reading while only 19 percent of them offer what teachers need to help kids learn math. Low expectations of ed schools beget worse expectations for teachers.
At least the Palmetto State’s new accountability system, part of the No Child waiver granted by the Obama Administration, requires districts and schools to achieve a 90 percent graduation rare for all kids. But as the peer review panel vetting the proposal pointed out, the state’s annual measurable objectives effectively allow for districts to not be accountable for the performance of poor and minority kids they serve. Just as importantly, four out of every five schools previously identified as low-performing under the old accountability system required by No Child are no longer subjected to any scrutiny, according to a report released last year by the New America Foundation. Essentially, the Palmetto State is letting traditional districts off the hook for failing children.
Given the lack of effort by Haley and other South Carolina politicians in advancing systemic reform on other fronts, it isn’t shocking that Common Core implementation is now being halted. This is because of a truism in reform: That efforts to overhaul education on several fronts beget actions in other areas. This is especially clear from the experience of Florida, where efforts to overhaul curricula standards, build comprehensive data systems, and implement accountability have aided efforts to expand school choice, as well as the nation’s experience with the passage of No Child 11 years ago.
But when politicians are unwilling to undertake reforms in other critical areas of education, they will eventually backslide on the one reform they were willing to support, especially when they face opposition from traditionalist forces still in control of district operations. This lesson, which serves as a warning to all reformers (including Common Core supporters who support eviscerating No Child’s accountability provisions), should really worry the likes of Greene, Stergios, and Enlow.
For one, Common Core foes cannot rally around any solutions because they are merely driven by that which they opposed and not by a common vision for transforming education. There’s no way that hardcore progressives within traditionalist circles, who want the status quo to remain ante, will agree to anything proposed by movement conservatives and school choice-as-silver bullet-oriented reformers, and vice versa. A coalition only based on mutual loathing of an issue or idea alone cannot tackle the myriad causes of the nation’s education crisis.
For school choice activists opposed to Common Core, this fact, along with the roll-back of its implementation bodes poorly for their own efforts. By successfully opposing the standards, they are aiding the very traditionalists who also oppose the expansion of school choice. This is especially true in states such as South Carolina where districts wield tremendous clout within political circles and have already shown how willing they are to oppose the expansion of school options. [The reality that choice on its own cannot spur improvements in curricula throughout American public education is one that Common Core foes such as Greene, Stergios, and Enlow continue to conveniently ignore.]
At the same time, by successfully opposing implementation of Common Core, school reformers opposed to the standards are also letting politicians such as Haley off the hook for abetting educational abuse and neglect. When Common Core foes who are also reformers spent so much time opposing the standards, they fail to keep in mind how badly politicians are doing in addressing how children are being poorly served by failure mills and warehouses of mediocrity from which these kids cannot escape. What these once-respectable reformers should realize is that Common Core offers numerous opportunities for advancing choice by fostering the conditions for families and politicians to push for expanding high-quality options.
Finally, in opposing Common Core, school choice activists are supporting the condemnation of the futures of the very children they say they want to help. Especially in South Carolina, where choice hardly exists in any meaningful way, the roll-back of Common Core implementation means that there will be no meaningful effort to overhaul the schools kids are forced to attend. Given that in both South Carolina and the nation as a whole, most kids attend traditional district schools, telling families to wait for high-quality education until school choice is expanded is both intellectually senseless and morally repugnant.
Common Core foes have scored a victory for themselves in South Carolina — and have condemned more of our children to the abyss. Particularly for once-sensible reformers opposing the standards, it is time to look themselves in the mirror and hold their heads down in shame.