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Research Measure Also Takes Subtle Jab at Common Core

Bipartisan research legislation that's slated to pass the House education committee very soon—and likely the full U.S. House of Representatives—takes aim at the Obama administration's championship of the Common Core State Standards (albeit in an indirect, back-handed, kind of way).

The bill is the fairly obscure, politically-low key reauthorization of the Education Sciences Reform Act, aka ESRA, which governs the Institute of Education Sciences, the U.S. Department of Education's independent research arm.

A bill to renew ESRA was just introduced Wednesday by Reps. Todd Rokita, R-Ind., and Carolyn McCarthy, D-N.Y., the chairman and ranking member of the subcommittee that oversees K-12 policy. The measure has the support of both the chairman of the full education panel, Rep. John Kline, R-Minn., and the top Democrat, Rep. George Miller of California.

The bill—which is primarily aimed at making education research more timely, relevant, and accessible—is one of the very few pieces of bipartisan education legislation to come before the committee in, well, a long while.

So what exactly does the bill say on the common core? Nothing at all, directly. But the bill includes a provision essentially expanding existing language in the most recent, enacted version of ESRA when it comes to the federal role in curriculum. The current law would prohibit IES from using federal money to "to mandate, direct, or control the curriculum, program of instruction, or allocation of State or local resources of a State, local educational agency, or school"—boilerplate language that makes it clear the feds shouldn't be monkeying with curriculum. (You can read the current version of ESRA here, the relevant portion is on page 33.)

The new version, recently introduced by the House education committee adds some key, politically loaded words. It says that IES can not "control or coerce" a state into setting "specific academic standards or assessments." (Check out the changes in the new ESRA bill on page 69.)

Here's how that's described in a House GOP summary of the bill: The legislation "dictates that no funds can be used to mandate, direct, control, or coerce the curriculum or academic standards or assessments of a state or local educational agency."

Some background: U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan gave states a leg-up in the Race to the Top grant competition if they embraced uniform, rigorous standards—in practice, only the common core counted. Duncan also made adoption of college and career-ready standards a prerequisite for states seeking a waiver from provisions of the No Child Left Behind Act. But states didn't have to go with common core. Texas and Virginia got the flexibility using their own standards.

Practically speaking, the ESRA language is kind of unnecessary. After all, IES has never tried to run a grant competition or dole out waivers on the basis of standards—it's an independent research arm of the department. And plenty of folks—including congressional Democrats—have argued that by giving states an advantage in Race to the Top for adopting uniform, rigorous standards, Duncan wasn't overstepping his bounds or using any sort of coercion. Ditto for the waivers.

What's more, the current version of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act already includes language that prohibits the Secretary of Education from directing or controlling a state's standards, curriculum, or assessments. (This didn't stop Duncan from using a competitive-grant program to encourage states to adopt the common core.) So again, nothing really changes if the bill becomes law.

"This language reflects current law and current practice, and it doesn't change anything. ESEA prevents the federal government from controlling curriculum, standards, or assessments. This would align IES with those same requirements," a Democratic House aide said.

This is hardly the first bill introduced in Congress recently that includes language prohibiting the federal government from taking any role in championing a particular set of standards (aka common core). And some of the bills are much, much stronger, mentioning common core by name. Some even directly call Duncan on the carpet for his role in bolstering the standards, and make it clear that the department can never use a state's standards as a reason to give it a grant or regulatory flexibility. So this language seems like a pretty benign compromise, if you're a supporter of the standards.

Still, it's clear that public perception of the Obama administration's role in championing the standards has become so politically toxic and sensitive that not even a low-key, wonky education bill can make it through Congress with GOP support without some sort of nod to it.

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