Common Core in California likely to continue despite Trump opposition

February 27, 2017

The Common Core has faced little opposition in California.

Opposition by President Donald Trump and Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos to the Common Core is unlikely to slow implementation of the new standards in English language arts and math in states like California, where there has been little opposition to the standards.

That is the consensus of education leaders in California from diverse regions of the state, even those in areas of the state where the majority of voters cast their ballots for Trump. One reason is that implementation of the Common Core is well underway in most parts of the state, and reversing its momentum will be difficult, if not impossible, to do.

Voters backed Trump in 26 out of 58 California counties, including Kern County, where Trump received 53 percent of the vote. Kern County Superintendent of Schools Mary Barlow said implementation of the standards in her county is fully underway and “we are seeing a lot of progress.” She noted that despite the pro-Trump sentiment there, “we have had relatively little pushback on the California state standards.”

“Employers are begging for students that have critical thinking skills, can problem solve and who are able to work in collaborative teams,” she said.

She said she anticipates “some changes as we move forward, just as there have been changes with each new president and secretary of education.” But, she said, “we are fortunate to have the support of our community around educational issues for all students.”

Another reason federal opposition will have limited impact is that the debate about the Common Core has moved far beyond whether the state should implement the standards.

“The big impetus a couple of years back was, ‘We’re changing,'” said Todd Oto, superintendent of the Visalia Unified School District. “Now we are in the midst of the work. It’s not about transitioning to it, it’s about doing it. So we really don’t have a conversation about ‘should we or shouldn’t we’ (implement the standards).”

More importantly, Oto and others said, it is unlikely that Trump garnered support in their counties because of his opposition to the  Common Core, but rather because other issues were far more important to voters. Oto’s district is in Tulare County, which Trump won with 53.4 percent of the vote.

Residents in Tulare County, he said, are more “focused on issues such as immigration, government reform and trust in government, not the Common Core,” and like Kern County’s Barlow, he said there is little opposition to the standards.

Educators also point out that even if they wanted to, DeVos and Trump have very little power to abolish the standards. With the passage of the Every Student Succeeds Act, the issue of whether the federal government or the states should set standards has been settled decisively – in favor of the states.

“He (Trump) can’t dictate what California does when it comes to the standards because it’s under local control, so I don’t think he will be able to follow through on that,” said Chris Dell, who is director of STEM Education in the Shasta County Office of Education. It serves one of the counties that voted for Trump by a large margin. Sixty-five percent of voters cast their ballots for him, compared with only 28 percent who voted for Hillary Clinton.

It is also far from clear whether the Common Core will even become a point of contention between the federal government and California.

Since repeatedly calling for the Common Core to be abolished during the presidential campaign, Trump has not mentioned it since becoming president (although his senior adviser Kellyanne Conway did on CNN). Most notably, it didn’t come up in DeVos’ contentious Senate confirmation hearing. She conspicuously didn’t raise it, and no one asked her about it.

It is not even clear how strongly opposed DeVos is to the Common Core standards. When Trump first nominated her, there was nothing in the public record of her expressing opposition to the standards. She had, in fact, been a strong ally of Gov. Jeb Bush, one of the Common Core’s main protagonists.

Several anti-Common Core organizations harshly criticized her selection on that basis. Within hours of her selection by Trump, to quell concerns of anti-Common Core groups, she posted a statement online that she was opposed to the “federalized Common Core standards.”

DeVos’ main focus over several decades has been promoting vouchers for private schools. Shasta County’s Dell said her selection by Trump suggests that the focus of federal policies will be on private school vouchers and charter school expansion, rather than abolishing the Common Core.

He acknowledged that some parents are unhappy with some aspects of the Common Core. There is work to be done, for example, to guard against teachers assigning homework that upsets parents who don’t understand their children’s assignments, especially those based on Common Core math. “Parents get frustrated, and that tends to heighten the dislike of the California math standards,” Dell said.

But in general, he said, implementation of the standards has moved ahead smoothly and parents, once they are told what the purpose of the new standards is, tend to come on board.

“Some people have gotten it, and think it’s worked well,” he said. “Some folks are still frustrated; but I end up talking to them, and once I talk to them about what the shift in learning is all about, they go, ‘OK, I get it.’”

Any effort to derail the Common Core would have to contend with the support that education organizations in the state have built for the standards – and the fact that all major education constituencies strongly back them.

Even if Trump were to use the bully pulpit of the presidency to stir up opposition to the Common Core, there isn’t a reservoir of pent-up hostility toward the standards waiting to be released, at least not in California.

“Given that less than 1 percent of students opted out of the assessments, and given the acceptance we’ve seen by both policymakers and educators, we think we’re set,” said Ryan Smith, executive director of Education Trust–West, an advocacy group for educational justice based in Oakland.

Carl Cohn – executive director of the California Collaborative for Educational Excellence, which assists school districts struggling to improve student academic outcomes – also said he thought that the state would be immunized against any effort by the federal government to discourage implementation of the Common Core.

That is in part because California has done a good job of “explaining to all stakeholders the value of Common Core in terms of preparing California students for college and careers in the 21st century,” he said.

Cohn said that the agency he heads is working with several districts in diverse parts of the state, including some in communities where the majority of voters chose Trump, and “we are not detecting any local stakeholder opposition or concern regarding the Common Core.”

Like other education leaders, he also said there is no evidence that voters chose Trump because of his – or their – opposition to the Common Core. “Our hunch is that they probably voted for him for economic reasons, rather than educational ones,” Cohn said.

State officials clearly don’t see a need to get into a fight with the federal government on the issue – especially because at the moment there is no issue to fight over. “We are ready and willing to work cooperatively with the new administration at the U.S. Department of Education on any and all issues concerning California’s public school students,” said Peter Tira, a spokesman for the California Department of Education. “At this time, we have received no communication from the federal government on this issue.”

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