BROOKLINE, Mass. – Retired University of Arkansas professor and well-regarded education expert Sandra Stotsky has been on the frontlines of the Common Core resistance from the very beginning.
Stotsky’s opposition to the nationalized math and English learning standards began five years ago, when she was serving as the lone English language arts standards expert on the Common Core Validation Committee. Stotsky found the standards – which tell educators the academic concepts to teach at each grade level – to be so deficient that she quickly turned into one of their earliest and most active critics.
When Stotsky isn’t traveling the country to share her Common Core expertise with education leaders and civic groups, she’s authoring or co-authoring scholarly analyses that prove the standards aren’t as “rigorous” as supporters claim. One of her most compelling studies – written with mathematician James Milgram – proves Common Core Common Core math standards actually undercut STEM education (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) by leaving pre-calculus instruction for the college years.
But Stotsky’s opposition has taken on new dimensions in recent months. In addition to fighting the one-size-fits-all learning standards through scholarship, she’s helping local school officials wage a kind of political guerilla warfare against the Common Core machine. The apparent goal is to challenge the legality of the new standards and related tests in the courts while concerned parents, taxpayers and lawmakers fight the K-12 overhaul at the ballot box and in the legislatures.
In mid-March, Stotsky informally met with school board officials in Massachusetts’ Peabody school district to discuss whether or not the district could let parents opt their children out of taking a pilot test of the new Common Core-aligned PARCC test.
Massachusetts officials expect schools to make a dry-run of the PARCC test this spring, a year before the assessments officially count for students, teachers and districts.
Acting on advice from Stotsky, the Peabody school board voted 5-1 to allow the parental opt-out. One board member offered this rationale: Since the pilot PARCC test is essentially a “research program,” the district “ought to require permission from parents before kids participate,” reports SalemNews.com.
The district joined six other Massachusetts districts that are allowing the opt-outs: Wachusett, Mendon-Upton, Cambridge, Norfolk, Worcester and Tantasqua.
Stotsky describes these as “very important developments” in the state’s battle against Common Core.
Similar opt out battles are being waged in numerous states and school districts, including Chicago, Denver, Seattle, Nashville, New Hampshire and New York, according to The Heartland Institute.
Common Core raises many legal questions
In an interview with EAGnews, Stotsky explains that the opt-out trend is based on the belief that state school boards – the governmental bodies that adopted the Common Core standards in 45 states – don’t have as much legal authority as everyone assumes.
For example, Stotsky says many state laws are silent on the matter of giving pilot tests. That gives local school officials – and parents – a lot of room to maneuver without worrying about reprisals from the state.
“Local school boards have a lot of authority,” Stotsky says, “though many don’t think so, which is part of the problem.”
Stotsky, who is not an attorney, believes the powers of local school districts could extend well beyond just nixing pilot tests. She says local school authorities can make the legal argument that any K-12 duties not explicitly granted to state officials through the state constitution belong to them.
In some states, that could mean local school officials have the constitutional right to craft their own learning standards. She cites Massachusetts, New Hampshire and Colorado as three states that allow localized standards.
According to Stotsky, it’s possible that local school boards could reject the state-mandated, Common Core-aligned tests on the grounds that they are not compatible with the district’s unique learning standards which were developed legally.
And even if school boards lose that legal fight and are required to give the Common Core-aligned tests, parents might not be required to have their kids take the test.
“What the law doesn’t explicitly forbid, parents can do,” Stotsky says. “That’s something people have forgotten. They think they can only do what the law tells them.”
She’s not alone in this view. Education professor and “opt-out” advocate Tim Slekar recently told the Heartland Institute there’s not a single state in the nation that has rules preventing parental opt-outs of standardized tests.
“It isn’t illegal,” Slekar says matter-of-factly.
What this all means is that school boards and parents can force judges in the 45 Common Core-affiliated states to weigh in on the many legal questions surrounding the K-12 overhaul. While there won’t be one definitive court ruling – education laws vary from state to state – the numerous legal challenges could have the effect of chipping away at the national K-12 experiment.
In other words, Common Core could suffer death by a thousand cuts.
“The lawyers are going to have a field day. A lot of these cases will end up in the state supreme courts,” Stotsky predicts.
The feds as a ‘toothless tiger’
Stotsky is also attempting to draw lawmakers into her Common Core uprising.
Some state lawmakers are afraid of pulling out of Common Core because they’re convinced the federal government will hit them with financial and legal penalties. That’s not an unreasonable concern. Many of the states that adopted the nationalized math and English standards did so, in part, because of a “nudge” from the federal government.
The feds did this by making the adoption of “common standards” a key consideration in their cash-for-reform Race to the Top initiative, and by linking the adoption of “college- and career-ready” standards to their No Child Left Behind waivers.
The extra cash and the waivers have left a lot of state officials too scared to consider dropping Common Core. They don’t want to tick off Washington D.C., and settle instead for symbolic bills and executive orders that reaffirm state control of public education and protect the privacy of students’ data – two of the peripheral concerns associated with Common Core.
In a recent op-ed, Stotsky essentially tells nervous lawmakers to “buck up” and see that, in many ways, the federal government is a “toothless tiger” in its ability to keep states involved with Common Core.
She begins by debunking the claim that states will be required to repay their Race to the Top (RTTT) prize money if they drop the nationalized standards. Stotsky says that’s highly unlikely, and even provides them with a legal argument, in case the feds press the issue.
“States can justify their withdrawal on the grounds that the Common Core standards do not meet the original requirements of ‘common standards’ outlined in the RTTT application,” she writes. “These standards were supposed to be ‘supported by evidence that they are internationally benchmarked.’ But they are not. The Common Core Validation Committee never received any evidence. Nor has evidence been provided by two post hoc attempts to provide such evidence ….”
As for the No Child Left Behind (NCLB) waivers, Stotsky advises lawmakers that “it is highly unlikely” the feds could impose some financial penalties – in the form of withholding Title I funds – against their state for quitting Common Core. And even if the feds could do so, she explains that the amount at stake would be a few hundred thousand dollars, not the millions as some fear.
Stotsky reminds state leaders they could keep their NCLB waiver by working with their state’s institutions of higher education (IHEs) to create a unique set of learning standards to replace Common Core.
“IHE approval of more demanding ‘college- and career-ready’ standards would allow the state to retain the waiver without penalty,” she writes.
Not a nation of sheep
It’s impossible to know which legal strategies – if any – will prove successful at rolling back Common Core. But one thing that Stotsky knows for certain is that this issue isn’t going away any time soon.
“Parents are getting angrier and angrier” about what their state board of education has done to their education system, she tells EAGnews.
She says “tiger moms” are not going to stand idly by and watch their kids’ school years be “wasted” on “garbage” teaching and learning techniques.
“Parents aren’t going to give up easily,” she says. “Bill Gates and the Fordham Foundation thought they had it all nailed down four years ago. They didn’t realize that parents and teachers were going to object.”
Stotsky believes Common Core’s claims of quality and rigor have been “discredited and that the battle is now about who will control public education: the federal government or the states and local communities.”
Stotsky sees a number of hopeful signs that suggest opponents of the K-12 overhaul may ultimately prevail. Not only are state lawmakers still under heavy pressure to repeal Common Core, but the next presidential administration might not share the Obama administration’s enthusiasm for the program.
“Even some Democrats don’t want control of public education in D.C.,” she says. “That’s why the (current administration) is going as fast as they can to get things in place.”
She points to Indiana’s recent repeal of Common Core as an indication of things to come.
“This still isn’t a country of sheep – yet.”