Common Core in South Carolina: FAQs

 WHAT IS IT? HOW MUCH DOES IT COST? AND WHAT CAN BE DONE ABOUT IT?

Over the past several weeks, a great deal of controversy and discussions have arisen on the topic of Common Core Curriculum. We asked our policy analysts to explain exactly what the program is, whether South Carolina has opted in to it, what it costs, and whether the state still has a choice to implement it or not.

What is Common Core?

Common Core State Standards are a list of specific universal benchmarks in English language arts and math developed by the National Governors Association and the Council of Chief State School Officers that will replace the current state K-12 standards of each state that adopts them.

Only Alaska, Texas, Nebraska, and Virginia have not adopted Common Core. Minnesota adopted English language arts Common Core standards, but not the math standards.

Has South Carolina adopted Common Core?

Yes. In September 2009, South Carolina became the 48th state to join the Common Core standards project after Gov. Mark Sanford and Superintendent Jim Rex co-signed the project application. In July 2010 the State Board of Education voted to adopt Common Core math and reading standards. The past two years have been “transition years” for school districts to begin getting familiar with the new standards, while the coming 2013-14 school year is a “bridge year” in which Common Core will be used for instructional purposes during the school year. Full implementation, which will include the new standardized assessments, will begin in the 2014-15 school year.

Does Common Core implement “national” education standards?

Technically, no. Practically, yes. In fact, the SC Department of Education even calls it a “national set of academic benchmarks.”  The federal government has its fingerprints all over Common Core via the following (see more from State Budget Solutions policy brief):

Race to the Top Fund (RTT). Created through the 2009 “stimulus” package passed by Congress and President Obama, RTT is a $4.35 billion fund that offers competitive grants to all 50 states based on a number of criteria on a 500 point scale. “Developing and adopting common standards” accounts for 40 of these points, giving states the incentive to adopt Common Core in order to accumulate points for that category. Put simply, the federal government offers states money for implementing Common Core.

No Child Left Behind (NCLB) Waivers: In September 2011, the Obama administration initiated the Conditional NCLB Waiver plan, which would allow states to waive several major accountability requirements of NCLB in exchange for agreeing to specific conditions – conditions strikingly similar to those implemented through Common Core (NCLB is the 2002 law that requires all schools receiving federal funds to evaluate students with rigorous standardized tests and show adequate progress or risk penalties and decreased funding). According to the Pioneer Institute, the NCLB waiver plan will “result in the [Department of Education] leveraging the states into a de facto long-term national system of curriculum, programs of instruction, and instructional materials.”

Federally Funded Standardized Tests: The “stimulus” bill also provided $362 million in funding “to a consortia of states to develop assessments” – and in September 2010, two state consortia (the Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers Consortium [PARCC] and SMARTER Balanced Assessment Consortium [SBAC])  won this federal grant money. According to the Pioneer Institute’s study, this process “displaces state assessment autonomy with new common assessments for all states in the consortia, directed and influenced by $362 million in federal funds and program requirements.” South Carolina’s Board of Education has approved the SBAC assessments, but approval from the Education Oversight Committee is still required before it can be finalized. Indeed, federally funded standardized tests, non-specific to South Carolina, will have a major impact on what South Carolina teachers teach, as their instruction will be centered on the fact that their students must pass a standardized test they have no control over.

How much will (has) it cost to implement Common Core in South Carolina?

It’s hard to say. According to AccountabilityWorks, costs of implementing Common Core for South Carolina are estimated to be $232 million over seven years, not including assessments. However, this doesn’t take into account that the state is constantly getting new instructional materials, funding professional development for teachers, and purchasing new technology, so much of this money would probably still be spent even without Common Core. Needless to say, while increased taxpayer cost is by itself a legitimate reason to oppose Common Core, the main reason lies with the federal intrusion into yet another area traditionally resting with states – education.

Speaking of spending on Common Core, it may be interesting to note that the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation is estimated to spend $354 million between 2010-2014 to help implement Common Core by helping states build a framework for a “common proficiency conversation,” develop syllabi, develop specifications for tech-based instructional platforms, create new scoring technology, and more.

Can Common Core be stopped in South Carolina?

It’s possible, but not easy. The reason has to do with the state’s power structure. South Carolina’s Education Accountability Act of 1998 gives the State Board of Education and the Education Oversight Committee (EOC), neither of which are accountable to a specific public official, the power to develop (or adopt) and approve statewide academic standards and assessments for K-12 education. The Board of Education consists of 17 members, 16 which are appointed by the legislative delegations from the state’s judicial circuits and one appointed by the governor. Even less accountable is the EOC, which consists of six lawmakers, the governor, five members of the business community (four appointed by legislators, one by the governor), five members from the education community (appointed in the same manner as the business reps), and lastly the State Superintendent of Education – who, oddly, doesn’t even get a vote.

There is little or no accountability in this structure. Two boards hold the lion’s share of power over the state’s education curricula, and these boards are accountable to no one officeholder. The hodgepodge mix of appointments, the majority of which come from the legislative branch, represents a broader problem our state has with giving the legislative branch too much power over the executive branch. With legislative appointments, there is no one person the public has to hold accountable when the department makes objectionable decisions.

If the state Department of Education is supposed to be in charge of our state’s education system and standards, then its leader (state superintendent of education) should have responsibility over academic standards, so the public can have some idea of where and how these decisions are made. As things stand today, both Superintendent Zais and Gov. Haley are against implementing Common Core, but have no power to stop it because the decisions lie with two unaccountable boards.

On the legislative side, three bills have so far been proposed that would prohibit the Board of Education from implementing Common Core – one from last year’s session (which was supported by Gov. Haley) and two this session, including S.300. However, given the slow pace our legislature likes to move on important legislation, it’s unlikely a bill like this would gain traction without heavy public pressure.

The bigger issue here is twofold, and requires two major policy changes. South Carolina’s Department of Education receives over $800 million annually from the federal government, which forces the state to comply with federal standards. The only way our state can realistically implement our own standards is if the legislature simply refuses those federal dollars. Further, the diffused accountability of the Board of Education and the EOC has allowed these bodies to implement Common Core with little regard for the superintendent’s and governor’s positions against it. Putting the Board and Commission directly under the authority of the governor would go a long way toward putting South Carolinians back in charge of the state’s education policy.

 

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