The way the American Legislative Exchange Council, the controversial conservative think tank in Washington, has handled the Common Core State Standards has generated an interesting conflict in the education community. Some who have dealings with ALEC believe the common standards could mean progress for K-12 schools, but others involved in the group believe the standards represent the camel's nose in the tent and a prelude to greater federal intrusion in state and local education policy.
The latest news is that on Nov. 19, after several discussions over the past year and at least one postponed vote, ALEC's legislative board of directors has voted not to adopt the resolution opposing the common core, the group announced in an email. ALEC stated that it will remain "neutral" on the common core, "but will continue to oppose any efforts by the federal government to mandate curriculum."
Remember that in January of this year, ALEC did pass a resolution opposing "federal intrusion in state education content standards," although of course the common standards are not officially a federal effort, but a collaborative state enterprise. One thing that should be highlighted is that ALEC is unusual for a think tank, in that its voting members are state legislators, who of course have to think about polls as well as white papers.
I asked Jonathan Butcher, the education director at the conservative Goldwater Institute in Phoenix who wrote the first draft of the anti-common-core language that ALEC just voted down, to what extent the decision represented a setback for foes of common standards. He said ALEC's previously approved resolution opposing federal overreach regarding state education remained a significant step forward, and that he also hoped states would use ALEC's discussion as a way to look for diverging approaches to the common core.
"It's going to look a little different as states consider either how to implement or how not to implement," he said, citing Utah as an example of a state that made its own decision regarding the standards when it withdrew from the Smarter Balanced consortium developing common core tests in August.
ALEC dealt fairly with both common standards champions and enemies during debates, Butcher said, although he added that he's "not the only one who's got an opinion on that." He also maintained that when the anti-common-core language was first presented to ALEC lawmakers about a year ago, it highlighted a disconnect between pro-common-core rhetoric and the reality of what legislators knew about standards, or if they knew the common core existed at all.
"If the common core folks can claim they've been working on this for years ... well, when we brought it up at ALEC, we got a lot of, 'Wow, didn't realize that,'" he said.
On one side of the debate that went back and forth at ALEC were officials like Indiana Superintendent of Schools Tony Bennett and former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush, Republicans who said the standards are not a federal K-12 takeover but an important way for schools to raise the bar for students. On the other side were policy mavens at places like the Pioneer Institute, the Boston-based think tank, who said that in addition to the political problems the common core posed, the standards themselves did not deliver as advertised in areas like college readiness. As you might expect, the Pioneer Institute was very keen on emphasizing the idea that Bennett's support for the common core was a big contributor to his defeat in the Nov. 6 election, when he lost to Democrat Glenda Ritz.
Voting down the anti-common-core language isn't inherently an expression of support for the standards, as ALEC stressed. At the same time, Bennett's defeat doesn't appear to have had a chilling affect on other elected state lawmakers when it comes to how they approach the common core. (Incidentally, ALEC's national chairman, who leads the board of directors that just took the common-core vote, is Rep. Dave Frizzell, a state lawmaker in Bennett's own Indiana.)