Observations on Common Core and More – Market Solutions Please


On June 13 of this year the Pennsylvania Business Council along with Pennsylvania Partnerships for Children and Team Pennsylvania Foundation hosted the Pennsylvania Education Summit, using the tag line “Building a Pathway to College and Career Success”.  For anyone interested, I created a scrolling video record of all tweets using the suggested hashtag #PaEdSummit, as a collection of observations of the many in attendance.  I thought maybe a summit would be just that, an event defining problems and seeking answers, from many ideas and points of view.  Indeed it did define problems, but then focused nearly entirely on one answer, the Common Core Academic Standards.  I was attending a Common Core love fest.

While I’ve learned more about Common Core and its origination and distribution since the summit, I knew enough at the time to know what I saw as dangerous and offensive to freedom, and had doubts that Common Core is even working on the right problems that are causing agreed failures in our schools.

First, dangerous and offensive: Putting together Common Core involved large sums of private money, reportedly $150 million alone from Education Summit sponsor Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, and was written by a handful of elite authors.  The Federal Department of Education presented states “offers they could not refuse” in Race to the Top money and No Child Left Behind waivers to get almost all (45) states to agree to the new standards in short order, as few people noticed.  If only we trust in the wisdom of these changes and align as one, this new effort at central planning will solve our problems as previous efforts, going back to Outcomes Based Education have not.  Just have faith.

But isn’t this the adoption of a monopoly of ideas so heavily invested failure will not be tolerated, continuing and intensifying pressures that have resulted in test answer changing scandals that even had Michelle Rhee refusing to answer questions?  Is it not also a dangerous path where large moneyed private interests can, in effect, set public policy without the consent of the elected representatives of the people?  Isn’t education better left without the involvement of the federal government, where states can be the laboratories of innovation?  Hasn’t education , if anything declined in quality since a stand alone federal Departmant of Education?  And since when do Americans align?  Americans innovate and break molds and build new ones in searching out opportunity and success.  The summit wasn’t about consideration of any of these issues or ideas.

From time to time I injected my counter views and concerns into my tweets, but they were never acknowledged in the presentation.  Finally in the last panel, state Senator Mike Folmer raised the issue of support in the home, that no new plans at the top are as important or necessary as supportive homes.  It was the stimulus I needed and I went to the microphone for Q&A with an infusion and intrusion of counterpoints and opposition.

I acknowledged the description of problems and good intentions then challenged the panel to tell me why Common Core is the magic elixir that will bring success as previous attempts have failed.  I made the suggestion that other factors may be at work,  as time has changed many things in our society, such as the advent of poor public policy in the area of social welfare that has provided perverse incentives toward single parent households, as well as the necessity for many two worker households, where neither parent has enough rested time with their children.  Seeming to support this possibility was an admission from the President of Elizabethtown College that our failures are concentrated in our 30% worst performing schools, without which we would compare favorably with the best in the world.  For that we seek to impose expensive cumbersome changes on everyone instead of focusing on the 30%?

I acknowledged the comment of Senator Folmer and as a specific example, spoke of a young Dr Benjamin Carson and how only a caring uneducated and probably illiterate mother who demanded reading books over watching TV was the determining factor in removing him from a path to failure; how then when he felt empowered by and accepting of reading, it was in that moment that a future successful pediatric neurosurgeon was born.  These were questions and considerations not included in the agenda of this summit.

As the panel was, what I felt, mostly dancing around my concerns in their response, I readied for my finale, three words in closing: choice, vouchers, and competition as the proven market approach that would likely do the most to improve all our schools, building a floor for quality and value in its process.  As the moderator went into wrap up mode I knew I wasn’t going to get the chance.  I decided to leave before the 15 min ending “Where do we go from here?” message.

On my way out I was stopped by Mr David Patti, President and CEO of the Pennsylvania Business Council.  He most graciously thanked me for attending and suggested this is one issue on which we don’t agree even as he appreciated my remarks.  I told him about the three words I had wanted to say.  When Mr Patti looked at me and said that the Business Council favors that also I was befuddled and remain so to this day.  Central planning and market solutions are at opposite ends of the Conflict of Visions described by Dr Thomas Sowell in his 1987 classic work.  Attempting to entertain both, in my opinion, is an internal conflict for those who try, and I am left puzzled when business people do not look first and foremost to the marketplace as the source of innovation and solutions that has consistently made America the envy of the world.

The experience reminded me of a similar situation, in which the Pennsylvania Chamber of Business and Industry took a position favoring Pennsylvania’s setting up a state run Obamacare exchange.  Despite phone conversations, emails and references to articles by Cato and others, I was never able to convince Chamber Chairman and CEO Gene Barr to end that support and back concepts to incentivize state employers to embrace high deductible health plans and health savings accounts, with their connection to market forces.  In talking to Mr Barr at the Education Summit he still defended state exchange support.

More than Common Core and more than healthcare I sense a disturbing trend inside the business community to not embrace and show unwavering faith in free markets over government schemes, especially central government impositions.  Yet then there are others like NFIB or the Pennsylvania Manufacturers Association who are  more consistently standing up for freedom.  In these times everyone must be standing on the side of freedom.

In one final note StudentsFirst.org was also a sponsor of the Education Summit.  This is Michelle Rhee’s creation and sits firmly in the unconstrained (Sowell) vision, accepting of elitists among us capable of divining solutions for the rest.  In keeping Common Core under the radar as long as it was, it seems curious, significant and deliberate that Rhee’s February 2013 book “Radical…” does not mention Common Core even once.

Note: This post was shared to WatchdogWire-Pennsylvania

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