The CPAC Panel on Common Core Was . . . Not Good

by Patrick Brennan

The main-stage panel on Common Core at the Conservative Political Action Conference today was billed by its moderator as a chance to learn about an important, contentious debate within conservatism.

Unfortunately, the audience only heard one, misleading side of the debate, which is a disservice to conservative Common Core supporters and to the audience members themselves. It was a badly missed opportunity to educate conservatives about how Common Core has created tension between small-government principles and the priorities of one of the most successful right-of-center movements of the past couple decades, education reform.

The moderator focused one of her questions on the idea that one of the biggest problems with Common Core has been its “content,” listing sex education, evolution, and U.S. history as flashpoints. This is straight-up misinformation — Common Core is a set of standards that doesn’t have “content” per se, since it’s not a curriculum. And it has nothing to do with sex ed, evolution and biology, or U.S. history — it contains math and English standards, no more. The panelist who answered this question did nothing to correct the misimpression (though Neal McCluskey of Cato, one of the panelists, mentioned later that, yes, sex ed is not in Common Core).

One panelist told the audience that once the Obama administration used its Race to the Top competitive-grant program to encourage the adoption of Common Core, the federal government had essentially made the program mandatory — that it was optional in the sense that anything where you lose a whole bunch of money is optional, because states would “lose that money” from Race to the Top if they didn’t adopt the standards.

That’s not correct: For one, Race to the Top eligibility just required the adoption of “college- and career-ready standards” — Common Core fits the bill but isn’t the only option. Virginia and Texas wrote their own standards. Further, Race to the Top was a relatively small, optional grant program, one that states could ignore without its impacting their existing federal funding at all. No state was going to “lose money” by not adopting Common Core. It certainly did play a role in getting a few states to sign on — most states were already part of the compact — but the panelist way overstated its role. The Obama administration’s tying No Child Left Behind waivers, which states need, to adopting standards has probably played a bigger role in promoting the standards from a federal level, but the audience didn’t really hear about the significance of that or how it works.

The moderator followed up her sex-ed question by asking about how Common Core would affect or limit parents’ ability to choose their children’s curriculum –whether they could choose, for instance, courses for a child who excelled in the sciences or the arts. Common Core is nigh irrelevant to this question: It sets minimum standards for what students should be learning, and has nothing to do with what advanced courses they can take or the content of those courses.

There were other misrepresentations, too: the idea that Common Core’s math requirements, which stop at Algebra II in eleventh grade, will make it harder for students to take advanced math (the standards are a floor; they won’t), and the idea that Common Core’s reading guidelines are dumbed down because they include informational texts (they don’t; they encourage a content-rich curriculum, and include informational texts specifically as a way to teach analytical skills).

There were a couple good stretches of the discussion — McCluskey gave a nice discussion at one point of the weak proof that national standards drive achievement, for example.

But a Common Core panel at CPAC that respected both sides of the debate could have been a great opportunity. Higher standards are a longstanding priority of education reform, a movement that’s been, as a policy and political matter, one of the most successful conservative ideas of the in recent years. (The idea was that a broad compact among states like Common Core would allow them to all raise their standards at once — which is how it’s worked. )

The Obama administration’s overreach on the issue has brought important questions about federal power and local control into the debate. Regardless of the nature of Common Core, conservatives can be well-justified in opposing it because they see it as encouraging central control of education. But CPAC should at least give them the whole picture, and an accurate one.

On the other hand, a large number of people streamed out of the conference’s main ballroom before the Common Core panel, after watching a panel on conservatism and Millennials. So the scope of the damage or the missed opportunity may have been limited.

(Note: I’m not criticizing the panelists by name because I don’t really think they were irresponsible on their own — it was the tone and organization of the panel that seemed to be the problem.)

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