Gov. Scott Walker and the Problem of Common Core

AP Photo/Charlie Neibergall
AP Photo/Charlie Neibergall

Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker has a history of shifting his stated positions on the controversial Common Core standards and inviting the federal government into his state’s education policy plans. Experts say his current position, of allowing school districts to “opt-out” of Common Core, would not rid his state of the nationalized initiative, an outcome that may ultimately tie into Walker’s commitment to the U.S. Chamber of Commerce’s “workforce development” program.

It was under Walker’s predecessor, Gov. James Doyle (D), that state superintendent Tony Evers signed Wisconsin up with the Common Core in June of 2010, making it the first state to actually commit to the standards.

Fueling the effort to adopt the new standards, the pro-Common Core and Gates Foundation-funded Thomas B. Fordham Institute gave Wisconsin a rating of “D” for its old English Language Arts standards and one of “F” for its math standards.

According to Wisconsin Reporter, neither the state’s Department of Public Instruction (DPI) nor the state legislature ever held any public hearings on the Common Core standards.

“Wisconsinites had almost no chance to read Common Core before Superintendent Tony Evers signed it,” said Joy Pullmann, managing editor of The Federalist and education research fellow for The Heartland Institute, during a public hearing before the Wisconsin Senate and Assembly Education Committees in 2013.

“In fact, Evers and former Gov. Jim Doyle …both signed Wisconsin’s applications for Race to the Top federal grants… Both contained assurances to the federal government that, to gain bonus points towards winning that money, Wisconsin would sign on to something no one had read,” she continued. “In addition, Wisconsin’s agreement with Smarter Balanced says the state will change any laws and regulations that stand in the way of the new testing system…”

After his election and throughout his first term as governor of Wisconsin, Walker supported the nationalized Common Core standards, and his budgets funded their implementation.

Kirsten Lombard, the Madison, Wisconsin-based editor of Common Ground on Common Core, wrote at Steve Deace’s website in January that, in 2010, the newly elected Gov. Walker garnered national attention for pushing through reforms in Wisconsin that repealed collective bargaining privileges for some public employees. Lombard’s timeline of Walker’s record on Common Core, however, begins in September of 2013, with a reporter’s question about the growing opposition to the education reform among conservative grassroots groups.

Wisconsin Reporter had indicated that, following its question to Walker about his views on Common Core, the governor responded: “[I]n the larger context I’d like us to be in the position where we can identify our own unique standards that I think in many ways will be higher and more aggressive than the ones they’re talking about.”

In October/November of 2013, Lombard notes that an ad hoc legislative committee was organized in Wisconsin to conduct hearings on the Common Core standards and, ultimately, make recommendations about the reform initiative. Both experts and citizens weighed in on the Common Core.

Subsequent to the hearings, however, only one bill of many that were introduced to challenge the Common Core was brought to the Assembly floor for a vote. That bill, which centered on student data privacy, died when the state Senate failed to take it up.

“Considering Governor Walker’s famous ability to lead and accomplish the items that matter to him, his failure to take an interest in the data-related bill, in particular, should raise eyebrows,” writes Lombard.

During the early part of 2014, she notes, Walker received a request to declare a “Stop Common Core in Wisconsin” Day, to which a staffer in his office responded that it had been “placed on hold by my boss.”

In February of 2014, an amendment to a bill that was fast-tracked and would have eliminated the Common Core in Wisconsin was abruptly pulled from the floor of the state legislature. According to the Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel, Walker’s office helped to craft a deal on the bill, turning it from a plan to repeal Common Core, to one that would create a new board of appointees that would recommend new standards.

Walker’s office then went “silent on Common Core for approximately four months,” observes Lombard.

As Walker escalated his re-election bid in July of last year, he announced that he was calling for the state legislature to repeal the Common Core standards.

“Today, I call on the members of the State Legislature to pass a bill in early January to repeal Common Core and replace it with standards set by people in Wisconsin,” the governor said.

However, as La Crosse Tribune reported, the day after Walker made that announcement, he said during a visit to a technical college that whatever standards are ultimately adopted in Wisconsin may not differ significantly from the Common Core.

“It’s one of those where they’ll have to adjust some things, some of the things may very well parallel, other things will be different,” he said.

It was not until the end of 2014 that the Wisconsin governor mentioned Common Core publicly again. At that point, his statements shifted from the notion of a statewide repeal of the standards to a suggestion of an “opt-out” for school districts, an alternative that would not likely rid Wisconsin of Common Core.

If repealing Common Core fully was not a priority for Walker, what he did insist upon in the new legislative session was a bill that would hold schools accountable. Two bills – one in each chamber – were proposed immediately in January, and each consisted of a plan to use the Common Core-aligned Smarter Balanced (SBAC) assessments as the main measure of accountability.

Lombard writes:

Leveraging SBAC for accountability only further entrenches Common Core in Wisconsin, ensuring that local school districts will have difficulty switching to a different standard even once full implementation of Common Core starts to go wrong. Walker also seems unconcerned that SBAC assessments have not been properly validated, making them a deeply unethical experiment on children, teachers, schools, and districts – an experiment with serious consequences.

With grassroots activists opposed to the Common Core reportedly inundating his office with calls, Walker subsequently announced in January:

I also want [the legislature] to make it perfectly clear in the statutes that school districts do not have to use [C]ommon [C]ore, and that we take it a step further and we work with the legislature to make sure there aren’t things like the Smarter Balanced test going forward that require the schools to use the Common Core.

Walker’s statement demonstrates that a full repeal of Common Core statewide is not likely, and that the “opt-out” message would be emphasized instead.

In his recent state budget address, Walker said:

…[O]ur budget removes funding for the Smarter Balanced test, which is connected to Common Core. We also include legal language making it clear that no school district in the state has to use these standards, which are set by people from outside the state.

I want high standards—and those decisions should be made by school board members and parents and others at the local level.

Walker’s actual budget proposal states:

  • Additionally, school districts will be allowed to choose student assessments that they feel best fit their locally- developed curricula and student population. Options will include a state test, as well as alternative tests certified by the Value-Added Research Center.
  • Move the state toward Wisconsin-based standards and assessments by affirmatively providing that no school district needs to adopt the Common Core Standards, the Department of Public Instruction may not participate in the SMARTER Balanced Consortium, and that SMARTER Balanced Assessments shall not be used in Wisconsin schools.

Walker’s move to defund Smarter Balanced (SBAC) came just one month before the tests were slated to be administered. In addition, there was no language in his budget to forbid the creation of a new assessment that would still be based entirely on SBAC, or even the test developed by the other federally funded Common Core test consortium, PARCC.

In an email statement to Breitbart News in mid-February, Walker’s press secretary Laurel Patrick wrote:

Governor Walker’s budget includes a repeal of Common Core. His proposal ensures locally-approved standards set at the local level by local administrators, educators, and parents. It explicitly states no school district in the state is required to adopt the Common Core Standards. The budget proposal also explicitly stipulates that DPI [Department of Public Instruction] may not participate in the Smarter Balance Consortium. The Smarter Balance would be in place this spring, but eliminated for the following spring.

The Wisconsin Journal Sentinel, however, reported that Walker’s proposal for the state to “choose a totally different state exam for 2015-’16, and let districts choose between that or one of several approved alternatives” is “currently impossible because of agreements the state has with the federal government to issue the same state test to all public-school students.”

Former senior policy adviser with the U.S. Department of Education under President George W. Bush Ze’ev Wurman explained to Breitbart News that Walker’s response is somewhat misleading:

Many states make state standards advisory in nature, allowing local school board a semblance of autonomy. What is almost never advisory, however, is the state test. In fact, for most states, the state test is always mandatory, which makes Walker’s argument that his proposal “ensures locally-approved standards set at the local level by local administrators, educators, and parents,” disingenuous.

“In other words, Walker’s response is true but misleading,” Wurman added. “Wisconsin school districts retain the theoretical authority to adopt their own standards, but since they will be judged by a Common-Core-like state test on Common-Core state standards, this is a fake authority. What Walker is saying is ‘Sure, you can select any standards you want, but you will still be judged on my test, aligned with my standards.’”

Similarly, Andrew Ujifusa at Education Week, observed, “So if schools will soon have the option of picking their own state tests to use, but results from those state tests must be statistically comparable to those from Smarter Balanced, a common-core aligned test, what incentive would districts have not to use Smarter Balanced for the relevant grades and subject areas?”

Still, AshLee Strong of Walker’s campaign said in a statement to Breitbart News on Saturday:

Governor Walker does not believe that the state should force individual school districts to use or reject any standard and the budget leaves such a decision to each district by repealing any requirement that they use Common Core standards and removing funding for programs focused on Common Core. He agrees with conservatives throughout the country that school decisions should be made at the local level.

Conservative leaders, however, are frustrated with Walker’s lack of commitment to full repeal of the Common Core standards.

“Common Core activists expect a governor to put the full force of his office behind legislation to get rid of Common Core and reclaim the legislature’s control of education policy-making,” Emmett McGroarty, education director at the American Principles Project (APP), tells Breitbart News. “And they are looking for someone who understands that the Common Core locks children into an inferior education.”

“So far, Governor Walker has failed to push through legislation and, by all appearances, has failed to even fight for the cause,” McGroarty added. “Common Core activists in Wisconsin, Iowa, and across the country are politically astute. They will hold the governor accountable if he betrays them and fails to back his words with action.”

The Common Core standards are only a portion, however, of Walker’s problem with conservatives in the area of education. Perhaps the broader picture is the ease with which Walker has allowed the federal government to intrude upon his state’s constitutional right to create its own education policy. Walker has sought and accepted millions of dollars in funding from the Obama administration for early childhood education, leaving his state open to oversight by the federal government.

In 2012, Walker applied for – and Wisconsin received – a $22.7 million grant to expand access to early learning programs through the Race to the Top Early Learning Challenge program.

In a press release in July of the following year, Walker announced that Wisconsin was selected to receive yet an additional $11 million in Race to the Top Early Learning Challenge funding, which reportedly will be active until 2016.

“The additional Race to the Top funding will help Wisconsin continue to be a leader in early childhood education,” Walker said. “These funds will support initiatives to improve early education in our state and help ensure kids across the state are prepared to begin kindergarten.”

According to the press release:

A broad coalition of state agencies collaborated to develop Wisconsin’s grant proposal which featured an ambitious reform agenda. The plan builds on the state’s historic commitment to high quality early learning and development programs and incorporates recommendations made by the Governor’s Early Childhood Advisory County in its 2011 report to Governor Walker.

However, all of these reforms depend on the federal government providing Wisconsin with funding – which always has strings attached.

As the Green Bay Press Gazette reported, Walker passed up on applying for further federal funding last year.

Walker’s less-than-federalist inclinations on education policy, nevertheless, are often overlooked by national conservative media, which has focused almost entirely on his repeal of collective bargaining rights for some public sector employees.

“The optics are right to think of Scott Walker as a man of courage, but that’s more the fault of unions chancing to use him for a last hurrah than a direct result of his choices,” Pullmann told Breitbart News. “Even the Act 10 that brought the wrath of a thousand socialists down upon him was by all measures pretty weak because it exempted some of the largest unions–police and firefighters. Walker was scared of the PR damage that could do.”

“What happened in Wisconsin was a union overreaction that, by contrast, made a man who stood still look pretty good,” Pullmann continued. “And Walker didn’t want to go further. His own office tried repeatedly to scuttle the right-to-work legislation he just signed.”

Pullmann questions Walker’s actual strength as a leader, despite some media images of him as a maverick.

“Walker acquiesces to federal arm-twisting completely, not just on Common Core and the early childhood shell game,” she said. “He wants to think that just standing up is enough to make him president. But Wisconsin and the nation need a conservative who can run some policy offense, not just field an ‘I’m present’ defense. Staying the course will soon bring us to financial ruin, and someone too wussy to get out in front can’t help us.”

Perhaps Pullmann’s assertion can be seen in Walker’s response to a parent-activist in New Hampshire who asked the governor about what he has done to eradicate Common Core in his state.

Grassroots parent organizer Ann Marie Banfield of New Hampshire asked Walker the following question:

You had mentioned earlier about taking power away from the federal government and moving it to the states. So, I’m interested in removing power from the federal government and actually giving it to parents and people who pay taxes to their local schools. So, I have a two-part question on education.

Can you please tell us what you’ve done in your state to eradicate Common Core that is causing havoc in our schools right now – that’s the first question, and then the second question has to do with the reauthorization of No Child Left Behind, because Jeb Bush was in New Hampshire last night and says he wants to reauthorize a failed program, so I can’t figure that out. But could you tell us what your thoughts are on HR5 and would you reauthorize something that we all know is a failure?

Walker responded:

And when I talked about this three buckets: growth, reform, and safety. In the reform category I believe we need to move wholescale portions of the federal government back to the states or in some cases back to the local governments – like education – which will ultimately put those levels of government more accountable to everyday taxpayers. Not every level of government obviously is perfect, but it gets you closer, so in areas like Medicaid and transportation, to me I’d move those to the states, and in areas like transportation [sic] I’d be predisposed to send that all the way back to the school.

An example I give to people not just at events like this is I tell people take a dollar out of your purse or your wallet, and ask yourself where would you better have that spent? Is it better spent sending it to Washington, where they skim all this money off the top and put it into bureaucracy, and then your school eventually gets pennies on the dollar back, or is it better spent keeping that dollar in your school in the first place, where your school board members, your teachers, your parents and others who are actively involved in those schools, can make a difference?

That’s something I say not just in answer to you today, but it’s something I’ve said many times before, I think we’re better off in that regard, so that answers your other part. To me, in terms of No Child Left Behind and other things like that, I’d rather just have the money and the authority to go back to the local level. I think we are better off in that regard, better off sending those dollars back to the local government.

And with the other part and schools, I’m all for high standards. I’m pleased to say that after four years of our reforms, even though the Left said it was going to just annihilate public education in our state – which was kind of interesting for me because Tonette and I had two sons in public schools at that time, so like why would I want to do that to my kids – but the reality is that because of our reforms that put the power back in the hands of the taxpayers and the people they duly elect to run our school boards, because of what we’ve done, we have no seniority, we have no tenure, we can hire and fire based on merit, we can pay based on performance, and that means our schools can put the best and the brightest in our classrooms, and the good news is our scores are better. ACT scores are second best in the country, our graduation rates are up, all the indicators are positive out there. So I like that, but I believe in high standards set at the local level. I don’t want someone from outside of my state or…outside my community telling me what high standards are. I want those to be set by people at the local level.

In our state – it’s weird – we have a separate Department of Public Instruction which is independently elected, so unlike many governors, I don’t have a cabinet position to say to the Secretary of Education, “Do this,” so by statute I have to make those changes in the budget. The budget I presented on February Third, removes any legal requirement from any school district in my state to have to abide by Common Core, and it removes all funding for the Smarter Balanced test which is tied into Common Core.

Regarding Walker’s response to her question, Banfield told Breitbart News, “When I questioned him about his position on Common Core and the reauthorization of No Child Left Behind, there didn’t seem to be the kind of commitment to fight this overreach as we would like to see, not the kind of leadership we are looking for.”

As Lombard and Pullmann observe, Walker often attempts to draw attention to his repeal of collective bargaining privileges for some public employees, promoting his actions in that effort as his “reforms.” And while that one reform may have moved the state in a positive direction, the governor did not follow through with support for “Right to Work,” and his reform also does not address federal intrusion into state education policy through funding of education programs.

In his response to Banfield, Walker reiterated that his budget “removes any legal requirement from any school district in my state to have to abide by Common Core.” This voluntary “opt-out” of Common Core, however, is not likely to occur if, as Wurman contends, there remains a “Common-Core-like state test on Common-Core state standards.” Unless Wisconsin’s state legislature repeals the Common Core standards, school districts are not likely to opt out of them.

Walker’s unwillingness to totally eradicate Common Core in his state may be due to the standards’ connection to one of the governor’s main missions – workforce development, or “school-to-work” (STW).

As Breitbart News reported earlier, Walker’s interest in workforce development is shared by many establishment Republican governors, the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, and local state business and industry groups.

The Common Core standards and the student data collected through the Common Core-aligned tests will serve as a vehicle to provide big business with a government-guaranteed labor force. Many grassroots conservatives believe that joining with business and industry groups in what amounts to an effort for a planned economy is an affront to them. While government can provide a favorable environment in which business can thrive via low taxes and few regulations, is it the role of government to provide the actual laborers by using student data to target those children who may have abilities for certain jobs and industries?

In addition, the emphasis on workforce development gives Republicans the appearance of not valuing higher education where critical thinking and analytical skills can be further developed.

Writing at The Federalist, Peter Lawler, Dana Professor of Government at Berry College in Georgia, notes that Walker’s problem is similar to that of perhaps most establishment Republican leaders: They simply don’t understand that a focus solely on workforce and jobs — and an abandonment of classical liberal arts education — actually serves the Left.

He writes:

[I]f Walker had looked more closely, he would have seen that on most of our campuses political correctness and careerism now go hand in hand. Experts, foundations, administrators, and bureaucrats are all about reducing higher education to the acquisition of competencies relevant to the twenty-first-century global competitive marketplace. So the study of the humanities has to be justified now through the “measurable outcome” of critical thinking or effective communication, competencies that have nothing in particular do with the actual content of history or philosophy. Among the competencies typically is diversity, which is about the kind of multiculturalism that detaches students from special concern for their own culture and its moral and intellectual claims for truth and virtue.

So it turns out that dissing liberal education in the sense of the love of truth and virtue for their own sake serves the forces that the governor opposes. He would deprive students of access to the books and music, the theology and philosophy, and so forth that might allow them to gain a critical distance from the fashionable claims of sophisticated intellectuals these days.

Lawler recommends that Walker “go beyond techno-careerism and political correctness in the direction of the timeless truth, and he should rail against the relativism that devalues genuinely higher education.”

In response to Breitbart News’ question to Walker’s campaign about whether it is the job of government to provide a supply of labor to businesses, Strong responded:

When Governor Walker took office, the unemployment rate was 8.1 percent and the state had lost 133,000 jobs under his predecessor’s last term. Under Walker’s leadership, Wisconsin employment is now at an all-time high of nearly 3 million workers, the unemployment rate is the lowest since 2008 at 4.8 percent, and 156,800 private sector jobs have been created according to monthly estimates.

Governor Walker often hears from Wisconsin employers that they have trouble finding skilled workers to fill open jobs, which is the type of problem that makes companies leave a state. Partnership among businesses, educational institutions, and the government enables people to get the training needed to secure the jobs employers need to fill and helps keep Wisconsin competitive and Wisconsin families working. The state’s high schools, technical colleges, and 4-year colleges are relied upon for educating those who will be productive members of the state’s economy. A large chunk of the state budget goes to education; so, workforce development efforts that work with the education system to ensure the state has the workforce needed is a productive use of limited funds.

Lombard reflects on Walker’s love of public-private-partnerships (PPPs) that are frequently glossed over by conservative media because PPP proponents use the language of the “free market.”

“Since taking office in January of 2011, Governor Walker has demonstrated a deep affinity for public-private partnerships in multiple policy areas, but economic and education policy are two prominent examples,” she explained to Breitbart News.

Lombard continued:

PPPs are often billed as “more effective government,” and, in a large sense, that’s accurate. But when government and business team up to advance an agenda of any sort, they inevitably circumvent and undermine proper representative process. While the partnership yields desired benefits for the involved public and private stakeholders — capital of one sort or another, control, privileges, etc. — it is always at the expense of the voice, will, and proper authority of citizens and taxpayers. Sadly, most people have become wrongly persuaded that PPPs are a free-market strategy. In fact, they are a mechanism for centralized planning.

As those grassroots activists who have been fighting against the Common Core standards for years now know, the nationalized initiative is the result of PPP planning: the Gates Foundation, the National Governors Association, the Council of Chief State School Officers, and Achieve Inc. – all private groups joining together with the federal government in the endeavor.

“The Common Core standards were purposefully designed to interface with and facilitate other existing PPPs, including School-to-Work (STW) initiatives,” Lombard added. “Since its passage in 1994, the federal School to Work Opportunities Act has been strongly advanced by both Republican and Democratic governors and legislators through state-level policies and programs – and Governor Walker is no exception.”

Lombard said that STW involves “career-tracking children at younger and younger ages in order to ‘grow and strengthen the workforce’ according to a planned economic vision.”

“In fact, STW increasingly leverages the schoolroom as a labor fulfillment center for business,” she explained. “Government’s role in STW is to properly shape and manage children on their way into the workforce pipelines specified by business.”

Lombard observed that, in an interview with the Wausau Herald editorial board in July 2013, Walker spoke candidly of the relationship between education and “strengthening the workforce” as well as pointing out sizable funding he placed in his 2013-2015 biennial budget ($2.2 million over the biennium) so that schools could assist children as young as the sixth grade in writing “academic and career plans.”

“This same line item, at the same funding level, is repeated in his currently proposed 2015-2017 budget,” Lombard observed. “Walker has additionally signed several pieces of STW-related legislation into law during his first term.”

“Common Core was designed to facilitate such STW ends, among others,” Lombard said. “It would be difficult, perhaps impossible, to believe that Governor Walker has not understood Common Core’s role in the STW scheme.”


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