Common Core, or a common cause — ‘Concentrate on issues that unite us, and divide the left’

OKLAHOMA CITY – A recent afternoon session at the State Policy Network meeting here was, for advocates of school choice, a banquet of “red meat” data and analysis. Even for anti-choice analysts, the open session was illuminating.

The most vigorous debate, on the “common core” controversy, was intellectually stimulating, yet perhaps — for all the sound and fury generated — the wrong argument over the wrong issue. 

The steadily increasing capacity of choice systems in the states was detailed, offering encouragement to those who have labored for decades in the vineyards in support of liberty and quality schools

In all, there are 14 tax-credit scholarships programs in 11 states (Arizona – three programs, Florida, Georgia, Indiana, Iowa, Louisiana, New Hampshire, Oklahoma, Pennsylvania – two, Rhode Island and Virginia.  These programs, the Friedman Foundation for Education Choice estimates, presently serve a total of 151,000 recipients. 

There are presently 18 voucher programs in 12 states (Colorado, Florida, Georgia, Indiana, Louisiana — two programs, Maine, Mississippi, Ohio — four, Oklahoma, Utah, Vermont and Wisconsin — two) and in the District of Columbia, with 104,000 recipients in all. 

Six states – Illinois, Indiana, Iowa, Louisiana, Minnesota and North Carolina – have tax credit/deduction programs now offering credits and deductions to thousands of benefactors.

In one state, Arizona, there are nearly 400 participants in the new Education Savings Account (ESA) program. 

As for that “Common Core” panel – Friedman Foundation’s Robert Enlow, Jay Greene, Fordham Foundation’s Michael Petrilli and former Oklahoma Secretary of Education Phyllis Hudecki – each participant made their cases with verve and insight. Enlow and Greene were against the Common Core, Petrili and Hudecki for it. 

Whereas school choice unites the various elements of the center-right, the debate over Common Core divides the ranks. It has taken from other education reform struggles time, energy, creativity and passion that could be devoted those other battles. 

Paul Weyrich, the “New Right” leader for whom I worked over a decade in the nation’s capital, used to say: “Conservative leaders should concentrate on issues that unite us, and divide the left.” 

With good souls in each camp, I nonetheless found prophetic the musings of Prof. Greene, an acclaimed analyst based at the University of Arkansas. He delivered a slashing critique of the “core” as a sincere effort at national reform that now looks like a “flavor of the month” (perhaps it should be dubbed a flavor-of-the-decade”), that is, the latest “solution” to the problems of American schooling. He also predicted the opposition is now simply too strong for Common Core to “succeed.”

In an impassioned closing speech that wrapped up the Friedman Foundation’s afternoon focused on choice – and later at a private dinner for Friedman folk and supporters of the Oklahoma Council of Public Affairs — Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal gave an eloquent and impassioned defense of educational options in the form of choice.

He didn’t say much about common core battles, and that might be the better part of wisdom, which is becoming a habit of his. 

Education reformers who want to make a difference within a reasonable time frame should move away from the fight over the common core and onto common ground: building on present momentum to forge a new push for the children, the taxpayers and the future. 

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