IT’S NOT JUST the presidential election that Gov. Charlie Baker plans to sit out.
Baker says he is also staying out of a fight much closer to home: A looming ballot question showdown over whether the state should repeal the Common Core education standards put in place six years ago.
The repeal effort presents a bit of a pickle for Baker, who testified in 2010 before the state education board against adopting the new standards, but is now in charge of a statewide education system that has been integrating Common Core into instruction and learning for nearly 1 million public school students.
Waving off a position on a hot-button issue directly related to state education policy is a surprising stance for a hands-on governor with a keen interest in school issues, who once served on the state education board. But the state’s top Republican, after swearing off support for his party’s presumed presidential nominee and staking out other moderate stands, may be looking to avoid further alienating the conservative wing of his party, where anti-Common Core sentiment is strong.
Though Baker said he does not plan to weigh in on the ballot question, he suggested that the repeal effort is not necessary now that the state has opted to develop its own test and not simply administer the assessment developed by a multi-state consortium to align with the Common Core standards.
“I think for the most part Massachusetts is already doing what the people who are interested in the Common Core question were looking for,” Baker said last week following a speech to a national conference of education journalists.
Last November, the state Board of Elementary and Secondary Education voted against adopting the PARCC test that districts had been piloting. The test was developed to align with the Common Core, new education standards for math and English that were developed through an initiative of the National Governors Association and the Council of Chief State School Officers.
The state’s education commissioner, Mitchell Chester, served as chairman of the multi-state PARCC governing board, which had many people convinced the state was prepared to formally adopt the test as the Massachusetts assessment.
The Baker administration signaled strong reservations about such a move, however, and Chester and the state education board opted instead to draw up a new Massachusetts test, dubbed “MCAS 2.0,” that would combine elements of the PARCC test and the MCAS test that the state has been using.
That decision, Baker said, freed the state from staying tied to the Common Core standards, which Massachusetts adopted in 2010.
Along with its November decision to develop a hybrid test drawing from both PARCC and MCAS, the state education board voted to begin a review of the state’s experience with Common Core standards to determine whether there are standards that are not working well and should be changed.
That shows, Baker said, that the state is in charge of its own education system and is not bound to the Common Core, which the federal government encouraged states to adopt by dangling money from the $4.3 billion Race to the Top program as an incentive. Massachusetts received $250 million in Race to the Top funding after signing on to Common Core.
“We’re not going to be the caboose to the train of a federal program,” said Baker. “We’re in Massachusetts going to chart our own course. And the board of education is going take the best of what I would describe as all possible options that are out there and create an MCAS 2.0 framework here that will work for our kids and our families going forward. I think that’s pretty consistent with the basic intent of the [ballot] question, which is to have Massachusetts chart its own course and make its own call.”
Baker’s effort to paint the ballot question as largely duplicating steps that the state is now taking is not persuasive to the leader of the anti-Common Core effort.
“I‘ll just respectfully disagree with the governor that what we want has been addressed,” said Donna Colorio, leader of End Common Core Massachusetts, which is spearheading the ballot question campaign. She said Chester has signaled that as much as 90 percent of the updated MCAS 2.0 assessment will draw from the PARCC test, meaning Common Core standards will largely have to be kept in place.
Opponents have criticized the heavy hand of the federal education department in pushing states to adopt Common Core. They’ve also leveled detailed critiques of the standards themselves, taking issue with Common Core’s approach to understanding math and criticizing the English language arts standards, which call for an increased emphasis on nonfiction “informational” texts, saying they are misguided and will diminish the study of literature and poetry.
Jim Peyser, Baker’s education secretary, said he doesn’t expect the current review of the state’s standards to lead to “radical change,” but he does “expect a conversation about meaningful change.”
While the process now underway is “not identical to the one that’s specified in the ballot question, it is intended to be a good faith effort, in substance, to accomplish what they are looking for,” said Peyser.
The administration has “made a decision to work through a revision of the standards” with a belief that this is “a process that may get them to a place where they have standards that approximate or, in their hope, go beyond what Massachusetts had prior to adoption of Common Core,” said Jim Stergios, executive director of the Pioneer Institute. The right-leaning Boston think tank, where Baker and Peyser both previously served stints as executive director, is a leading national voice against Common Core. “We’re empiricists so we’ll see how it comes out,” said Stergios.
If approved by voters this fall, the ballot question would rescind the state education board’s 2010 vote to adopt Common Core, and it would reinstate the state standards that existed at that time. It would call on review committees of teachers and academics to be responsible for monitoring the standards and recommending any changes.
The ballot question would also mandate that the state release all of the test questions from the statewide assessment every year. That would mark a big change from current practice, in which about half of the test questions are publicly released. State education officials have said that could add significant costs to the state testing regime.
During his unsuccessful 2010 run for governor against Deval Patrick, Baker was the only person to testify before the state education board against adopting Common Core.
But his objections were more focused on process than the substance of the standards. He argued that the state, which enjoyed the top ranking among all states in education achievement under its own standards, was rushing its decision with little public input. He worried that Massachusetts would be “hitching our wagon and our future to some national consortium” over which the state would have no control. In a July 2010 op-ed in the MetroWest Daily News outlining his stand, Baker made only glancing reference to the standards themselves, writing that “many experts in the education community tell me the federal standards are pretty good.”
Today, Baker says the issue is whether the state has full control over its test and standards. “I think as long as we maintain our independence, as long we build our own frameworks and our own testing module and we take the best of what’s out there and available, I think that’s what we should do here,” he said.
Though Baker and Peyser are not taking a public stand on the ballot fight, they both sound like they’d be happy if the whole thing just went away.
It’s still possible that will happen. The Supreme Judicial Court heard arguments last week in a legal challenge to the ballot question.
The plaintiffs in the suit maintain that the question should not be allowed on the ballot because the initiative petition process only allows questions that propose new laws or changes to the state question. They argue that voiding the education board’s vote on Common Core would invalidate a vote of an executive branch agency. They also argue that the ballot question violates a principle that the elements of a ballot question must be closely related. The plaintiffs say that repealing the Common Core standards and requiring that all questions from the state’s annual tests be publicly released are distinct and not necessarily related issues.
The attorney general’s office argued that the ballot question is a proper use of the citizen initiative petition process.
The justices seemed much more pointed in their questioning of the assistant attorney general, but court observers say it’s not always possible to glean how they are leaning from oral arguments.
A decision by the court is likely in June.
Common Core standards, which are billed as providing a pathway for students to be “college- and career-ready” when they finish high school, have stirred controversy nationally. Decrying Common Core and vowing to repeal the standards — even though they are under state, not federal, control — has often been the single point presumed Republican president nominee Donald Trump makes when referring to K-12 education policy.
A February poll by the University of Massachusetts and WBZ found the repeal question enjoying strong support, with 53 percent of the Massachusetts registered voters surveyed saying they would vote to repeal Common Core, 22 percent saying they would vote no on the question, and 25 percent not sure.
Common Core supporters, a group being led by former state education commissioner Robert Antonucci, say they are prepared to mount a campaign against the repeal effort if the SJC clears the measure to appear on the ballot. They’ve hired the Boston public relations firm Rasky Baerlein to develop campaign messaging. “We think that there’s a path to victory just by explaining the substance of the argument and how disruptive this would be,” said Larry Rasky, the firm’s CEO.
For his part, the governor says he’s got a full plate when it comes to involving himself in ballot questions. “I’m going to focus on the marijuana question and on the charter school question in the fall,” Baker said of the November ballot questions.
He waved off the idea that he should also have a position on the Common Core question. “You know, I have a day job, too,” he said.
[Clarification: The story originally reported that Massachusetts had opted out the multi-state consortium administering the PARCC test. Massachusetts remains in the consortium, but has said it won’t administer the PARCC test, as is, but will instead develop a hybrid test that combines questions from PARCC and the state’s MCAS exam.]