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Education bill’s fine print forbids education commissioner from implementing Common Core standards

Whatever the fine folks at the Legislative Office of the Revisor of Statutes are paid, it’s not nearly enough.

Brenda Cassellius
Brenda Cassellius

Whatever the fine folks at the Legislative Office of the Revisor of Statutes are paid, it’s not nearly enough. I’m talking, of course, about the people who are literally in charge of the fine print in every bill generated at the Capitol.

I always imagine them forced to wear jewelers’ loupes by the proofing of thousands of pages of successive engrossments — engrossment being a fancy way of saying version — making sure whatever’s slated to be repealed is crossed out with the strike-through function and that amendments added are underlined.

By way of example I offer you the first section of the mammoth omnibus education bill passed last week by the state Senate. It’s so laden with copyediting marks and politically radioactive provisions that you’d be forgiven if you missed the two lines that would prohibit Commissioner of Education Brenda Cassellius from implementing something called the Common Core standards.

Just a few months ago, the Common Core standards were about as uncontroversial as education reform got. They were a fix to something most people, irrespective of their politics, agreed was a policy problem.

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Ten years ago, when George W. Bush passed No Child Left Behind, he created a series of penalties for schools and districts whose students failed to score “proficient” on standardized tests. Because NCLB left it to the states to come up with the tests and define proficiency, some states set bars that were lower than others. The costly penalties created incentives to go low indeed.

Bush left the defining to the states because, as a card-carrying Republican, he favored local control — rhetorically, anyhow.

Educators traditionally do, too, but they were also painfully aware that as a result of the patchwork they and their pupils were being evaluated on measures that could seem arbitrary. So a couple of years ago a number of state governments — specifically the National Governors’ Association and the Council of Chief State School Officers — began working together to even things out.

The so-called Common Core State Standards the representatives crafted over time were also designed to solve a few other problems that are probably too technical to flesh out in this space. Suffice to say, they were prepared in such a way as to allow for a wide array of approaches to meeting them, diverse curricula and to encourage critical thinking where NCLB’s testing regimes encouraged memorization.

(I wrote a wonky little piece on the core standards you can find here.)

Time passed, Barack Obama got elected and began formulating ideas for overhauling NCLB. In keeping with his and U.S. Education Secretary Arne Duncan’s habit of borrowing liberally (ba-dum-cha) from reforms conjured at the local level, Common Core standards made their way into his platform.

Rep. John Kline
Rep. John Kline

Perhaps because some conservatives have long fretted that Democrats mean to create one nationalized public-school curriculum — Texas, we’re talking to you here — Obama left alternatives for states that did not want to sign on to the Common Core standards. Pretty much the only person grousing about it was Minnesota’s own Rep. John Kline, then a mere congressman.

But Kline is now chair of the House Education and Workforce Committee, and his ideological kin control both chambers of the state Legislature. And so the third engrossment of Senate File 1030 has several dozen lines instructing Cassellius to revise and align numerous state academic standards, but no specific guidance on the content thereof, just two lines telling her what she cannot adopt.

That local control? It seems it doesn’t necessarily extend to allowing the state’s ranking teacher to decide what Minnesota lesson plans should encompass.