Wisconsin report: School districts could pay a combined $256 million for Common Core

September 6, 2013

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Ben Velderman Ben Velderman

Ben was a communications specialist for EAG from 2010 until August 2014. He is a former member of the Michigan Education Association.
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MADISON, Wis. – When Wisconsin lawmakers passed the new two-year state budget in June, they included a provision requiring the nonpartisan Legislative Fiscal Bureau to calculate how much the new Common Core learning standards will cost the state to implement.

Hand on head coverThe bureau submitted its official answer last Friday, though it leaves lawmakers (and anyone else who reads it) with nearly as many questions as they had three months ago.

The bureau’s report, in a nutshell, finds that the new math and English learning standards will cost the state government very little, but they’ll cost Wisconsin’s 426 school districts anywhere between $62.3 million to $256.1 million to implement.

Lawmakers might have gotten a more precise answer from a Magic 8 Ball.

Nevertheless, the report contains some important findings that Wisconsin taxpayers should be interested to hear about.

We’ll start at the state level.

In its report, the Legislative Fiscal Bureau notes that since Wisconsin schools are locally controlled, the state is not responsible for funding things like textbooks, classroom materials or curriculum-related professional development – all areas Common Core directly impacts.

The report bluntly states, “There is no direct fiscal effect on the state to update district curriculum and teacher practice to align with the Common Core standards.”

The state doesn’t get off scott-free, though. The General Assembly will pony up $12.1 million annually to pay for the new standardized assessments students will be required to take under Common Core, beginning in the 2014-15 school year.

Things are much fuzzier – and more expensive – at the school district level.

According to the report, it’s simply “not possible” to determine how much Common Core will cost the school districts, “given the decentralized system of school governance in place and the lack of data on individual districts’ planned activities and expenditures around standards implementation.”

Instead, the report cites an analysis from the Fordham Institute – a pro-Common Core think tank – that estimates implementation could run as little as $61 per pupil to as much as $396 per pupil.

The Fordham folks can’t get more specific than that, because they don’t know if school district leaders will buy all new textbooks for their students (a very expensive option), or if they’ll opt for more digital and online resources (a much cheaper option).

Likewise, the analysts don’t know if district leaders will train their educators in the Common Core standards by sending them to a weekend conference at some posh hotel, or by putting them in the school gymnasium to watch an online presentation.

If districts take a “blended” approach to implementing Common Core, Fordham analysts estimate the transition could cost between $109 and $189 per pupil.

(It should be noted that Wisconsin districts spend a certain amount every year to purchase textbooks and instructional materials and to provide teachers with professional development workshops. Districts could apply those dollars toward Common Core materials and training, thus driving down any new, out-of-pocket expenses.)

A lose-lose situation

Then there’s the little matter of the technology upgrades that school districts will have to make, in order to administer Common Core’s computer-based assessments.

Neither the Legislative Fiscal Bureau report nor the Fordham Institute analysis estimates how much districts will have to spend on faster computers, increased Internet bandwidth, wiring, and various other IT costs associated with the switch from paper-and-pencil testing.

If implementing Common Core in Wisconsin schools sounds pricey, consider what non-implementation might cost districts. The bureau report states:

“If Common Core were discontinued, depending on the timeline for implementing another set of new standards, a significant amount of work at the school district level … would need to be duplicated, including a new round of curriculum reviews, professional development for teachers around instruction, curriculum, and assessments, and an examination of resources and materials, including textbooks, workbooks, software applications and other digital materials, for alignment with the next set of standards.”

In other words, at this point dumping Common Core could be as expensive as implementing it.

Couldn’t the state save all that money by simply dusting off its pre-Common Core learning standards?

Not according to the Legislative Fiscal Bureau: “The state’s prior model academic standards … are not considered college and career ready,” which means Wisconsin might lose its No Child Left Behind waiver from the Obama administration if it tried to re-install those standards.

To recap: Implementing Common Core might cost Wisconsin schools roughly a quarter billion dollars, but canceling Common Core might cost even more.

In the business world, this is known as a “lose-lose” situation.

Here’s the kicker: For all the expense and headaches caused by Common Core, nobody has any idea whether these new standards will improve student learning, or if they’ll fall flat like most other education fads. That’s because Common Core has never been field-tested anywhere in the U.S.

Wisconsin’s Common Core mess brings to mind something economist and author Thomas Sowell once wrote: “There is usually only a limited amount of damage that can be done by dull or stupid people. For creating a truly monumental disaster, you need people with high IQs.”

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