Arne Duncan comes out publicly against Common Core... Duncan tells Congress 'I'm just a big proponent of high standards. Whether they're common or not is sort of secondary...'

Has the U.S. Secretary of Education whose two signature policies have been "Race To The Top" and "Common Core" changed his mind? In two days in April 2014, it began to sound like Arne Duncan had joined thousands of parents, teachers, students and political leaders -- in opposition to Common Core.

Has U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan come out in opposition to Common Core?As of the early morning of April 10, 2014, the news was still waiting to hit the major news services and newspapers. But it began coming out early. Education Week was reporting by the morning of April 9, 2014:

In Testimony, Arne Duncan Continues to Distance Himself From Common Core. By Michele McNeil on April 8, 2014 Education Week blog.

In a hearing before a House appropriations subcommittee Tuesday, U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan defended the competitive grants built into his fiscal 2015 budget request, gave no substantive details about a proposed Race to the Top for equity contest, and continued to distance himself from the Common Core State Standards.

"I'm just a big proponent of high standards. Whether they're common or not is secondary," he told members of the House appropriations subcommittee that works on health, education, and other related issues.

Duncan also maintained that there are "zero" federal grants tied to the common core, after being pressed by members, including Rep. Martha Roby, R-Ala., who has filed legislation to prohibit the federal government from trying to encourage states via grants or waivers to adopt certain standards. (Note I clarified Roby's position, as she's not explictly anti-common-core, just against the federal government getting involved in such things.) Duncan pointed out that in instances where U.S. Department of Education programs such as No Child Left Behind Act waivers are tied to common standards, they include a back-up option for non-common-core states: getting universities to approve the standards as college-ready. (Virginia has a waiver, but has not adopted the common core.)

But when it comes to competitive grants, the answer is more complicated than "zero." The administration's original $4 billion Race to the Top program awarded 40 points to states for developing and adopting common standards. All 12 of those winners have adopted the standards, and have not backed off. What's more, a separate, $360 million Race to the Top contest to fund common tests was based on the premise that states needed help developing such assessments based on the common standards. But technically, aligning to the common core wasn't required (you just probably weren't going to win without it).

Duncan's testimony, which didn't contain such nuances, illustrates the fine line the department continues to walk between supporting states as they implement the common core, and not giving critics ammunition to cry "federal overreach."

Duncan appeared before the House panel Tuesday to answer questions about the Obama administration's $68.6 billion budget request for the Education Department, which would be about a $1.3 billion increase over fiscal year 2014.

That request includes a new $300 million Race to the Top contest that would offer grants to help states and districts create data systems that track things such as teacher and principal experience and effectiveness, academic achievement, and student coursework.

When pressed by lawmakers, however, he gave few, if any, new details about the contest—other than to imply that rural schools would not be overlooked in any new competitions.

Rep. Steve Womack, R-Ark., wondered "how a competitive program actually addresses equity? ... [It] creates winners and losers in public education." Duncan, however, stressed throughout the hearing that carving out small chunks of money to push states to become models for others is a very fruitful use of federal tax dollars.

And members pushed back in general on the administration's continued focus on competitive-grant programs. This is a years-old complaint.

Diane Ravitch reported late on the night of April 9, 2014, that Arne Duncan had joined the opposition to Common Core. "Stephanie Simon writes in," Ravitch reports, "that Arne Duncan is not really in favor of Common Core. Common what? Common who? Never heard of it. Ah, how soon politicians forget what they said last week, last month, last year. And they expect us to forget too.

Simon writes on Politico:

"COMMON CORE LOSES ITS BIGGEST CHEERLEADER: It was less than a year ago that Education Secretary Arne Duncan delivered a no-holds-barred defense of the Common Core in a speech to newspaper editors. He cited example after example of the benefits of common standards: Teachers in different states could use the same lesson plans; children of military personnel could move across country 'without a hitch' in their schooling; and, first and foremost, 'a child in Mississippi will face the same expectations as a child in Massachusetts.' In short: 'I believe the Common Core State Standards may prove to be the single greatest thing to happen to public education in America since Brown v. Board of Education,' Duncan said.

-- That was then. This was Tuesday [April 8, 2014]: "Just to be very clear with this group," Duncan told the House Appropriations Committee, "I'm just a big proponent of high standards. Whether they're common or not is sort of secondary."

-- Duncan immediately added that his stance was "not news." And his spokeswoman, Dorie Nolt, later pulled up audio from a press breakfast in January where Duncan was asked about whether the term "Common Core" was politically radioactive. "We're not interested in the term," he responded then. "We're interested in high standards. There are a couple ways to come at it." Indeed, the administration has never required states to adopt the Common Core; it just offered financial and policy incentives to adopt higher standards - and embracing the Common Core happened to be by far the quickest and easiest way to hit that bar."

So what gives?

Here are some possibilities:

1. The Common Core standards have become so controversial that Duncan wants to pretend he had nothing to do with them.

2. Duncan has been warned by his advisors that his support and Obama's is actually dragging down the poll numbers for the Common Core so the best way to help them is to back off.

3. Someone is planning to sue the U.S. Department of Education for illegally interfering in curriculum and instruction by supporting the Common Core, so Duncan must pretend he had nothing to do with their swift adoption by 45 states. His lure of $4.3 billion was just a coincidence.

4. Duncan realized that his cheerleading contradicted his insistence that the Common Core was "state-led."

Can you think of another reason that Duncan forgot that only a year ago he said the Common Core was the most important development since the Brown decision?


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