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Common Core Faces Kentucky Legal Challenge, Questions About 'Rebranding'

Kentucky has often been hailed as the exemplar of implementation of the Common Core State Standards, from its handling of new classroom practices to the way it's massaged the public perception of lower standardized test scores. But a couple of developments over the last week might give Bluegrass champions of the common core, and friends of the standards in general, some pause about the standards.

The first potential kink is a relatively straightforward one: A political activist, David Adams, has filed a lawsuit challenging the legality of the common core in Kentucky. What's his argument? He essentially says that the Kentucky Legislature has failed to fulfill its obligation under the state constitution to ensure an "efficient system of common schools" and to make sure those schools are operated "without waste, duplication, mismanagement or political influence." The Kentucky state school board officially adopted the standards in June 2010. But because state officials and others announced that they would be adopting the standards before they were finalized, Adams told me, they not only jumped the gun, but also crossed the line into some form of mismanagement or malign political influence.

Adams is president of Kentucky Citizens Judicial, a group whose mission is to challenge state government in court. I asked him how he would get around the fact that the Kentucky state board, not the legislature, is responsible for adopting standards. He responded that this doesn't negate state lawmakers' job overseeing K-12: "They're still responsible to see that this is done in an efficient manner."

When I asked Kentucky education commissioner Terry Holliday about this suit at a meeting of the Council of Chief State School Officers in Richmond, Va., on Nov. 15, he was dismissive. He said that the Kentucky legislature has overseen how common core is working in the state very closely, and approved the correct regulations governing the standards. 

"My attorneys tell me it's very confusing," Holliday said of Adams' lawsuit. 

Let's leave the lawsuit aside and talk about a different issue that's related to the common core. During a panel discussion about effectively communicating to the public and to schools about common core, Holliday bemoaned the meager state of his schools' budgets. Teachers in his state, for example, have gone five years without pay raises, Holliday said. When I subsequently asked him whether he thought schools' dire financial straits might negatively impact common core in Kentucky, he responded that he thought other aspects of public schools would be affected, but not the standards. But it seems fair to wonder if common-core implementation, which is such a major priority and challenge for many states, might be harmed by the sluggish economic and fiscal climate state and local officials are still dealing with. 

Common core, you probably won't be surprised to hear, dominated the CCSSO policy meeting last week. U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan, when thinking about how the public at large is perceiving the standards, seemed to be of two minds.

On the one hand, Duncan seemed to blame some of the negative reaction to the standards on a specific group of privileged parents, in remarks that have gotten a lot of attention from the press: "It's fascinating to me that some of the pushback is coming from white suburban moms who all of the sudden my child is not as brilliant as I thought they were and their school not as good ... that can be a punch in the gut."

At the same time, he also said that those trying to communicate to parents about the importance of the standards have failed as well in some respects when he told the chiefs, "I don't think we've done enough to ... convince parents that the competition is not next door or the next town over, it's in India or China."

The keynote speaker, former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee, also focused on the standards during his remarks. After pointing out that there was "nothing ideological" about the history of the standards' development, he urged the state chiefs, he said that "the term 'common core' has become toxic" and that the states, rather than abandoning it, should change how they present it to the public, and even consider changing what they call it.

"Rebrand it, refocus it, but don't retreat," Huckabee told the chiefs.

It's worth pointing out, however, that this isn't a new idea for states. Back in September, Arizona Gov. Jan Brewer, a Republican, signed an executive order stating that the standards shouldn't be referred to officially as common core any more. Will this type of rebranding be a truly effective weapon to use in battling common-core pushback? The phrase from the movie Fight Club, "The first rule of fight club is: You do not talk about fight club" might come to mind for some.

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