Veteran education watchers in California could not recall a presidential cabinet officer ever attempting to block state legislation and certainly not in the heavy handed way U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan attempted to do on Monday night.
In an extraordinary move, Duncan issued an after-hours statement in an effort to head off a vote by the California Legislature the next day on Assembly Bill 484. The bill calls for administering field tests tied to the Common Core State Standards this spring in place of the California Standards Tests in math and English that have have been a fixture on the California education landscape for 15 years.
But lawmakers brushed aside Duncan’s threats to withhold federal funds if they passed the bill, and did so anyway. California won’t “look in the rear view mirror with outdated tests, no matter how it sits with officials in Washington,” said State Superintendent of Public Instruction Tom Torlakson.
What was especially puzzling was that Duncan used the cudgel of the No Child Left Behind law to force California to continue to administer the kinds of tests that many educators – including Duncan – have criticized for measuring only a portion of what children are expected to know to graduate from school ready for college and careers. NCLB, signed into law a dozen years ago by President George W. Bush, requires states to administer standardized tests for grades 3 through 8 each year – and then imposes a range of sanctions on schools and districts if students don’t meet ever-higher benchmarks mandated by the law.
Just two weeks ago, in an op-ed article in the Washington Post titled “America Needs a New Education Law,” Duncan called the NCLB law “outmoded and broken.”
Adding to the confusion is that the California legislation Duncan opposed is key to the state’s plan for full implementation of the Common Core State Standards, scheduled for the 2014-15 school year. Yet Duncan has been one of the chief promoters of the Common Core standards. He placed such a high priority on them that he made adoption of the Common Core a requirement for getting support from the $4.3 billion Race to the Top fund. The requirement impelled dozens of states, including California, to adopt the standards, even though most did not end up getting Race to the Top funds.
“They (Duncan and his colleagues) have been as strong as they can be on the Common Core, saying do it quickly and do it completely, and that is what we are trying to do,” said State Board of Education President Michael Kirst. “We view this (Duncan’s attempt to block the legislation) as inhibiting us rather than enabling us to do what he wants.”
Kirst said the decision to move ahead with having students take the Common Core assessments this spring was not an attempt to defy the federal government. “This is just a one-year transition” to full implementation of the Common Core in 2014-15, he said.
He pointed out that in the spring of 2015, millions of California students would be required to take the new assessments anyway, and that it was prudent for a state the size and complexity of California to get a head start and try out the tests in the spring of 2014, as called for in the bill approved by the Legislature yesterday.
“If the objective is high-fidelity implementation in 2015, then one of the best ways to do that is to administer it well in 2014,” Kirst said. ”California is very different from Maryland, Rhode Island or Delaware. We have gigantic logistical problems, and it is essential in a big complex state like ours to administer the tests wherever you can.”
It may well be that Duncan was attempting to head off other states that would request waivers from administering their standardized tests this year, instead of having only some students take the pilot Common Core assessments and the rest taking the standardized tests.
Duncan’s actions also seemed to revive the simmering conflicts that California has had with the Obama administration on a number of education issues. California was unsuccessful in several attempts to get Race to the Top funds. The state refused to apply for a waiver from NCLB provisions because of multiple requirements imposed by the Obama administration, including that evaluations of teachers in the state be tied to student academic performance and other measures. When it applied for a waiver under other provisions of the law, Duncan rejected it.
Adding to the potent mix is that Duncan failed to spell out what exactly the penalty would be if California went ahead and implemented the provisions of AB 484. Would he withhold all Title 1 funds that school districts receive through the NCLB law? Or just the administrative costs that the state receives to administer them? Whatever action Duncan may take, the state would likely appeal, and it could take years for the dispute to be resolved, perhaps until Obama is close to leaving office, or has already left.
After Gov. Brown signs AB 484 into law, the next step in the tense back-and-forth between Washington and Sacramento would be for the State Board of Education to file for a waiver from the provision of NCLB that requires it to administer standardized tests each year. Duncan’s actions in recent days suggest that he would be likely to deny it, just as he did California’s earlier application for waiver.
What seems far clearer is that Sec. Duncan’s 11th-hour effort to force the state’s hand on what tests it should administer to millions of students this spring has not earned him any new friends in California.