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Uncommon Core: your Legislature at work, but for whom?

Our state, like our nation, has something of a split personality on education standards. On the one hand, we all seem to like the idea of going farther, higher, more rigorous. On the other hand, we're suspicious of things "not invented here" and especially things that are not under our own control. Of course, it also depends on what we mean by "our own" control.

House Bill 4192, currently in the House Michigan Competitiveness Committee, would do a number of things but is most often described as banning the Common Core State Standards for use in Michigan. The Common Core, you may remember, was a set of math and English standards developed by a group assembled by the National Governor's Association and state school superintendents across the country. It has been controversial for several reasons: for some, the focus on national testing and standardization (along with shifts in the standards themselves) drew considerable ire. For others, the fact that the standards were developed with the (strong) encouragement of the Federal government and the Obama Administration in particular made them immediately suspect.

Michigan's current standards, implemented locally over the last several years, are based on the Common Core for math and English; the state recently moved to adopt the Next Generation Science standards and continues to develop its own social studies standards. Making changes in grade level standards, given the high stakes attached to the tests keyed to those standards, is both costly and risky. So this is not a minor discussion.

Feds, keep out!

HB 4192, sponsored by Rep. Gary Glenn (R-Midland), would actually do several things:

  • Prevent the state of Michigan from adopting or using the Common Core standards or "any derivative or permutation" of same;
  • Prohibit the state from adopting the national Next Generation Science Standards;
  • Mandate that the current state standards, in all subjects, be replaced with the pre-Common Core standards used in Massachusetts through 2009 (with appropriate Michigan content in social studies) - and that subsequently, no national standards may be adopted;
  • Direct that the Department of Education develop a new state test aligned with those standards, subject to detailed approval by the state Legislature;
  • BUT, also make state standards optional, so that individual school districts (and charters) would be free to choose their own - though they would still be subject to the state test.

In a potential violation of the separation of powers, the bill also directs the (independently elected) State Board of Education and MDE to "respect and support the ultimate right" of parents to opt their children out from "any public school activity, practice, or testing that the parent finds unacceptable...."

Finally, buried in the middle of the bill is a curious section - proposed Section 1278e(2)(c)(3) - which says: "this section shall not be construed to promote any religious or nonreligious doctrine, promote discrimination for or against a particular set of religious beliefs or nonbeliefs, or promote discrimination for or against religion or nonreligion." We'll talk about this in a minute.

What to make of this? Michigan Parents for Schools' position on the Common Core and related issues has been consistent: parents want standards that work well for our children, no matter where they come from. We don't want to reject good ideas just because they come from somewhere else, but we are reluctant to pledge to use something that is determined so far from the local level that we as parents have little influence. In that respect, even the Michigan Department of Education and the Legislature seem pretty far away. Whatever we use ought to be developed by people who are experts in their fields, with robust input from local school staff and parent groups. Good ideas from places that have seen success should be welcome.

What's the real motive here?

Where we have been firm, however, is that whatever standards we adopt should serve children, not simply be a tool to mandate national high-stakes standardized testing. Forcing every community to move in lockstep with regard to standards just so that we can all take the same test is absurd. Making it possible to compare my child's test scores with those of little Johnnie in Spokane is of no use to me because it gives me no information about why there's a difference or how I could make things better for my child (or Johnnie, for that matter).

Our worry is that this bill is less about maintaining flexibility than it is about removing certain constraints on the content of public education. This is where that odd language about "religious beliefs or nonbeliefs" comes in. They originate, it turns out, in a "model academic freedom" bill distributed by organizations seeking to allow the teaching of topics like creationism in local public schools. Language like this has been included in bills proposed or adopted in a number of other states. It is significant that this bill also expressly singles out the Next Generation Science Standards for prohibition, even though Michigan only recently adopted standards based on them. Likewise, the sudden shift from the legislature pushing overwhelming conformity to allowing each school to set their own standards, is quite notable.

In the 15 February hearing on HB 4192, the committee discussed the bill very extensively with its sponsor, Rep. Glenn. Accompanying Rep. Glenn to introduce his bill was Melanie Kurdys, a former Portage school board member who has campaigned against the Common Core for many years now. Ms. Kurdys is also a former GOP candidate for State Board of Education, whose nomination was secured by Tea Party activists who defeated then-incumbent SBE member Nancy Danhof (R-East Lansing) primarily because of her acceptance of Common Core. (In an interesting twist, Ms. Kurdys' running mate was Todd Courser, who would later be elected to the state House and leave it in disgrace not long after.) Evidently, Ms. Kurdys and Rep. Glenn worked together as part of a "working group" of organizations opposed to the Common Core to develop the legislation.

Two moments in the first committee hearing on this bill stand out: the sponsor, Rep. Glenn, saying that although he had not read through all of the pre-2010 Massachusetts standards, he had read the social studies standards and thought they were just great. Except the Common Core has no social studies content with which to compare, a fact which raises the question of where his objections lie. Ms. Kurdys, the anti-Common Core leader, made sure to point out that while the Common Core does not specify curriculum content, she averred that some of the suggested works for English classes were considered "pornographic" by parents opposed to the standards. I think we've heard this all before.

It's the public - all of us - who should run our public schools

We know that there is considerable opposition, in Michigan and elsewhere, to the idea of public education that is truly controlled by the public; there's also opposition to the notion that public education must honor the Constitutional separation of church and state. The appointment of Betsy DeVos as US Secretary of Education could not make the point clearer, given the agenda she and her family have pursued here in Michigan. If you wanted to allow public funding for private religious education, through vouchers or otherwise, how might you do it? Besides changing the state constitution, which currently prohibits such funding, you would also need to weaken publicly-adopted state standards. "Yes, we have state standards, but if your school or charter wants to teach 'intelligent design' instead of evolution, be our guest. Feel free to cherry-pick the list of literature which you feel is suitably uncontroversial and appropriate for children." After all, isn't that what "local control" is all about?

MIPFS has no issue with parents who wish to provide their children with a religious education, during the school day or otherwise. But our nation is founded on the idea that faith is a personal matter and that there is great danger inherent in putting the force of government behind or against any set of beliefs. Our public schools, funded with public tax dollars, must remain open to all and ready to serve all children regardless of their background. What we teach must serve all future citizens, and not be bound by the point of view of any one faith. Efforts to erode these principles, like HB 4192, do a disservice to our communities and our nation.

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