Three Common Core Executive Orders Change Little

Published October 21, 2013

The governors of Iowa, Maine, and Arizona recently issued executive orders on Common Core national education standards, but to little effect.

On October 16, Iowa Gov. Terry Branstad (R) wrote, “The State of Iowa, not the federal government or any other organization, shall determine the content of Iowa’s state academic standards, which are known as the Iowa Core.… Only aggregate student data shall be provided to the federal government to comply with federal laws.”

In September, Gov. Jan Brewer (R) ordered the standards’ name in Arizona changed to “Arizona College and Career Ready Standards” from “Common Core.” State Superintendent John Huppenthal explained the change as a matter of perception, not substance:  “The Common Core brand has become devalued by curriculum issues not associated with the standards.”

Maine Gov. Paul LePage (R) delivered a strongly worded executive order in September: “The federal government has no constitutional authority to set learning standards in Maine or any other state, nor determine how children in the State of Maine or any other state will be educated.”

Sop to Conservative Base
Brewer’s order similarly “direct[s] that no standards or curriculum be imposed on Arizona by the federal government, and that the power to set and define learning standards for students in Arizona’s public schools remain within the State Board of Education.”

The statements appear to result from agitation against the national initiative among the governors’ conservative bases and Republican Party organizations, but since the orders don’t actually change anything, they have not reassured critics of the Common Core, said Jonathan Butcher, education director at the Arizona-based Goldwater Institute.

“The governor and her staff have clearly stated that they are not changing the actual content of the standards, just the name of the standards,” Butcher said. “If the state board isn’t changing the standards, then just changing the name of the Common Core isn’t going to address the main problems—low-quality, expensive, and characterized by federal overreach.”

In Iowa, political analyst Shane VanderHart says Branstad’s order had some effects, such as allowing local districts to ignore Common Core’s suggested texts.

The Maine Non-Event
As in Arizona, Maine’s education department still stands firmly behind the Common Core standards, a national template for what kids should learn in K-12 math and English, accompanied by federally funded national tests starting in 2014-2015.

“Some have rightfully questioned the role of the federal government in the development of the standards, and what impact having shared standards with other states will have on Maine’s longstanding tradition of local control,” said Maine Department of Education spokeswoman Samantha Warren. In response, the governor issued his executive order. “That executive order in no way moves Maine away from the learning and accountability standards that are in place today,” Warren said.

The order was intended to “remove any doubt” among Maine voters “about who sets learning expectations for Maine students,” she said. State policymakers still do that, and local school boards are responsible for carrying out the goals they set, she said.

Local Control an Illusion
Although state and federal lawmakers continue to insist the public still has local control of schools through school boards, most boards have little real power over schools, said local school board member Elaine Heuiser of Casco, Maine.

“The structures existing in our states today are designed to shield school boards from any control,” she said. “When I first became a board member, I had to attend seminars designed to dissuade me from ever believing we could change how our district designed curriculum. They explained that we had to go through a complicated process to get legislation passed at the state level.”

For example, schools are rated by the state and sometimes funded based on student test scores, which are tied to the federally funded Common Core tests. Teacher evaluations also often depend on these scores, giving teachers and local districts strong impetus to teach Common Core.

“To date, no one has brought to us an individual standard or standards and suggested specifically how it could be improved to better prepare students for success beyond high school, but we would certainly welcome that,” Warren said.

Image by Gage Skidmore.