Kansas Puts Hope in Common Core Standards

Published January 10, 2011

The Kansas State Board of Education (KSBE) voted to make the Sunflower State one of the last states to adopt the national Common Core State Standards Initiative. These standards were designed by a state-led effort put together by the National Governors Association Center for Best Practices and the Council of Chief State School Officials. The program is supposed to set common expectations for those students who plan to go to college and for those who plan to enter the career field after high school.

The KSBE decision was not unanimous, with one member in opposition and two not present. The vote was 7-1. The standards could take effect as early as 2012. Forty-three states have signed on.

Ken Williard, who was absent for the vote, said he worried the board had not adequately considered the federal government’s influence on the process or the possibility of strings eventually being attached.

“We received explicit assurance that there would be none of either, and that strongly influenced the decision of the board,” Williard said.

Kansans ‘Were Way Ahead’
Board member Janet Waugh said the board concluded the standards would be “a positive step forward” for Kansas students.

“We appreciated the variety of input that was provided during the development of the standards, including considerable input from representatives of our state,” Waugh said. “I believe the Common Core Standards provide the appropriate focus and rigor necessary for student assessment, and I appreciate that the standards are internationally benchmarked and allow us opportunities to collaborate with other states.”

Board member Kathy Martin praised the state’s previous standards while approving the changes.

“Adoption of the Common Core Standards by a majority of states is supposed to help provide more continuity across states. However, being a teacher for over 30 years, I found repeatedly that our Kansas students were way ahead of most every child who transferred into our school from out of state,” she said.

“The Kansas Department of Education did extensive review and alignment and offered some well-received suggestions,” Martin addd, explaining her yes vote. “The final draft resembles the Kansas standards for both areas but with some alterations. There is also the provision that each state can add up to 15 percent to the common core standards in areas that they feel are weak.  In math, for example, Kansas will probably add some material covering estimation and patterning.”

Adopting the Common Core Standards means the state won’t have to review and revise language arts and math standards this year, Martin added.

Says Board Ignored Criticism
John LaPlante, an education policy fellow with the Kansas Policy Institute in Wichita, says the state board ignored arguments Common Core would deprive state and local officials of a say in education policy making.

“It’s unfortunate that Kansas has bought into the idea that better education can come about through centralizing education even more,” LaPlante said. “The beauty of our political system is that even today, power is dispersed not only among three branches of the U.S. government but [also] between the U.S. government and state governments. The Common Core Standards Initiative moves us further away from that model of government.”

Although the Common Core Standards technically aren’t a federal initiative, LaPlante says the U.S. Department of Education will find it easy to oversee and shape national standards in the years ahead.

“What’s the point of ‘common’ if it’s not national? The result will be local controversies writ large,” said LaPlante.

Jeff Reed, state program director and government relations director at the Foundation for Educational Choice in Indiana, agrees, saying, “What state residents have to ask themselves is, by whom do they want their learning standards determined? And are these individuals and groups so omniscient that they know what 65 million students need to learn? Spare me the elitism,” Reed said.

‘Expect More Flare-Ups’
LaPlante says the plan won’t end political controversies over education. “Rick Doll, the superintendent of the school district in Lawrence, has praised the standards, saying ‘what we teach in school should not be dependent on the political leanings of a governing body.’ And I agree. How ironic, then, that he and many others in Kansas want to contract out the setting of school standards to the national political stage.

“Kansas became the butt of national jokes when it changed its science standards a few years ago, so I understand why some people would find it useful to put the decisions about standards out of the reach of fellow Kansans. But that runs against federalism, and in the end, Kansas voters, voted to flip their standards to the status quo ante,” LaPlante added.

Reed says the politics could become even more heated. “I would expect more political flare-ups, not fewer, if Washington takes over learning standards,” he said. “Americans get angry—and rightly so—when they’re stripped of power, only for it to be amassed in Washington, DC.

“Kansas needs to do what Milton Friedman suggested decades ago: Move from a system that funds schools to one that funds students,” Reed advised. “And with that change, suddenly parents will be empowered to shop for the schools that fit their children best. And when schools compete for those children, their quality will increase as a result. It’s as simple as that.”

“Only broad-based, statewide school choice programs—like universal vouchers, tax credit scholarships, and strong charter school laws—can achieve this end,” Reed concluded.

Sarah McIntosh ([email protected]) is a constitutional scholar writing from Lawrence, Kansas.