GateHouse Media special report: Grading Common Core — Political Divide
Illinois has entered its second school year with the new Common Core standards in place, and because of a broken state education funding formula, it appears it’s here to stay.
Republican local lawmakers are concerned about the implications of the new system. Democrats say the law was just put in place, and it needs time to gain momentum.
Common Core was introduced to Illinois in 2010, implemented through the Illinois State Board of Education. Some state lawmakers took objection to that, including state Sen. Darin LaHood, R-Dunlap.
“Something this big and this major to go through the state board of education was a mistake because there were no hearings, there was no discussion with the people, parents, teachers to have a say in this,” LaHood said. He said it should have gone through the legislative process, where lawmakers would get their chance to vote on the issue.
LaHood’s colleague across the aisle, state Sen. John Sullivan, D-Rushville, said Common Core needs time to settle into the fabric of this state’s education system.
“It’s early in the process. Whenever you implement a process like this it takes time,” Sullivan said. “It looks like there needs to be more time to phase this new program in.”
However, another Democratic lawmaker is skeptical. State Sen. David Koehler, D-Peoria, said he thinks there are positives to Common Core, but he has his own concerns.
“I was not a fan of the No Child Left Behind program because of the problems it had,” Koehler said. “Teachers were teaching to the test. I’m cautious of Common Core for the same reason.”
Sullivan doesn’t consider the program a blanket approach, but rather a level playing field for the state to be evaluated upon.
“The intent of Common Core is to get a uniform set of education standards so we know how everyone is doing across the state,” Sullivan said.
However, State Rep. Norine Hammond, R-Macomb, is worried it gives an unfair advantage to wealthier school districts with more access to the changing technology.
“If the student is testing pencil to paper and that district is comparing itself to a district who has the benefit of greater technology, is everything going to be on par? I’m not certain it will be,” Hammond said.
Her Galesburg colleague, state Rep. Don Moffitt, has concerns of his own.
Moffitt, R-Gilson, said he believes the “one-size-fits-all” model takes away practical learning curriculum students need for the real world.
“Because of the evaluation and performance ratings it forces teachers to teach to the test rather than teach practical knowledge for the real world, and that’s no fault of the teachers,” Moffitt said.
LaHood agrees, and called the “blanket approach,” unfair to local school districts.
“A fourth grader in Mississippi and fourth grader in Galesburg are not the same,” LaHood said. “School boards are different in different places and that’s why they’re elected locally.”
However, Sullivan reiterated that schools need more time to implement the more rigorous system, and that one school year isn’t enough.
“We strongly encourage the state board to give us more time and the districts more time and resources,” Sullivan said.
Pipeline to federal funds
Other than changes to curriculum, lawmakers say it also helps the state raise money for school districts, a task they’ve found to be challenging in recent history.
The federally funded Race to the Top grant is available only to states that have implemented Common Core standards.
In December 2011, Illinois was awarded the grant that will pay out $42.8 million over four years. Half the money will go directly to the 35 districts that participated, 14 of which were in Chicago or the surrounding suburban areas. Peoria District 150 and Canton District 66 were the participating area schools.
The rest goes to the state to build support, provide supplemental funding for participating districts and pay for new equipment.
It is unclear how powerful this grant will be in the grand scheme of education funding. Last year, the state paid out $5 billion in General State Aid to 863 school districts.
Nationally, the future of Race to the Top grant could be in question with election implications, since lawmakers would have to vote to fund the states again under the program.
One Democrat on the Hill seems poised to stand behind Race to the Top. U.S. Sen. Dick Durbin, D-Illinois, said the Race to the Top and Common Core are necessary to keep the United States a vital player in the global market.
“We need to continue to look for ways to elevate the quality of our schools, to improve college readiness, and to ensure that our children have the skills they need to compete in the global economy,” Durbin said in an email. “Race to the Top has brought more than $40 million in federal assistance to Illinois to help accomplish those goals.”
But just as at the state level, Republicans criticize Common Core as a facet of big government.
Durbin’s opponent state Sen. Jim Oberweis, R-Oswego, said Durbin’s leadership on Common Core has put him in bed with “the education bureaucracy and union bosses.”
“We need to de-emphasize federal control over education and encourage school choice options that empower students and parents to find high-performing schools,” Oberweis said on his campaign website. “School choice also sets teachers free to choose the best teaching environment for them.”
Attempt to limit federal ‘interference’
Regional Republicans are making moves to dismantle the effects of Common Core through legislation.
Congressman Aaron Schock, R-Peoria, introduced a bill last year that would assign local school districts the authority to make policy decisions without interference of government agencies.
In a media release, Schock’s website said local school district policy has been “eroded through policies and requirements unilaterally established by federal agencies.”
Though he didn’t name Common Core or the Race to the Top grant specifically, he said the programs have placed additional unfair requirements on school boards which forces them to take money from other pots to implement new standards, diminishing the productivity of the classrooms.
“I believe a big part of this is ensuring local school boards do not have their authority eroded by regulators in Washington,” Schock said in the news release. “Not all education regulations are misguided, but the ones that are need to be taken off the books. The focus has to be expanding the opportunity to learn; not tying the hands of local administrators with more red tape by federal bureaucrats. My legislation ensures this encroachment does not continue and restores the local authority school boards need.”
Some Dems soft on Common Core
Other Democrats have been shy of the issue, which could be a sticking point in their election campaigns.
Congresswoman Cheri Bustos, D-East Moline, does not appear to want to throw support one way or the other for Common Core or the Race to the Top grant.
“I believe that curriculum should remain within the control of districts, school boards, school leaders and teachers,” she said in an email.
However, Bustos is “pleased” to see Illinois gain from the program.
“I am pleased that Illinois was awarded $43 million in funding to help improve our educational system,” Bustos said in an email. “While there have certainly been some challenges with Race to the Top, such as criticisms that tests are an inaccurate way to evaluate teachers, concerns that the government has too much influence over local schools, and complaints that some of the reforms being promoted are unproven, there have also been some tangible results.”
She cited this past year’s graduation rate, which the U.S. Department of Education was more than 78 percent, the highest it’s been since 1974.
Bustos is in a tight race against former Congressman Bobby Schilling, whom Bustos ousted two years ago.
Wrong approach to education reform
Schilling’s campaign Communications Director Jon Schweppe said Schilling is officially opposed to Common Core and the Race to the Top grant. He said it assumes “bureaucrats know how to teach better than teachers.”
“This one-size-fits-all approach was brought about by people that haven’t been teaching,” Schweppe said. “It’s a backwards way to reform education.”
Schock is facing re-election this year as well, taking on Darrel Miller, D-Danvers.
Miller said he doesn’t think Common Core is necessarily a bad program, but it should be about the students, not federal funds.
“I think states should adopt Common Core based on its merit, not based on federal incentives,” Miller said. “If I was in Congress, I probably wouldn’t appropriate more money for that.”
From Congress to the Legislature, lawmakers say there was pressure to implement Common Core standards to be eligible for the federal grant.
Sullivan said it’s definitely an enticing incentive, due to the state’s broken funding system.
“I think there is a definite incentive,” Sullivan said. “You could call it pressure. I think the important thing is to take a step back and explain why we’re doing this.”
While Sullivan’s main purpose is to level the playing field for students, the state’s taking advantage of the federal dollars due to the broken education funding system that hasn’t been paying it’s end of the bargain with school districts.
School funding short
Illinois school districts are paid on a per-student basis, on something called the “foundation level.” Currently, that level is set at $6,119 per student.
However, not one school received 100 percent of its state funding. And this isn’t new, it’s been going on for decades. This past fiscal year, the state funded just 89 percent of the foundation prorated over the year.
What’s puzzling is the Illinois Constitution mandates the state has to fund education in full.
However, in 1996, the courts ruled the language “hortatory,” or a goal to strive to achieve, not a legally binding mandate.
Because of the state’s habit of skipping out on the bill, schools have to rely on funding from other sources, including the Race to the Top grant from the federal government.
With this money dangling in the face of states with broken education systems, there is a pressure to implement Common Core standards in order to obtain the federal money.
Regardless of who wins elections, local schools are starting to settle into their second school year under the Common Core curriculum in Illinois.
It’s unclear how Common Core has affected students in its first year, and it may be unfair, since the program is only one year in.
Koehler said it may take some time before the state finds a plan.
“How do we begin to lift the scores of all schools, poor and wealthy?” Koehler said. “Some will do well, others will struggle, so we need to take a look and see before we allocate resources for this program.”
Editor’s Note: This is a project by 18 newspapers in GateHouse’s Western Illinois division looking at Common Core standards adopted by Illinois and what impact it is having on schools in the 11-county region of west-central Illinois. Newspapers talked with teachers, administrators and politicians to get a read on how the implementation of Common Core is going and what the future holds for this federal initiative.