Governor Branstad’s Common Core Executive Order, A Good First Step



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Governor Terry Branstad issued an executive order yesterday in order to address some of the concerns a growing number of Iowans have about our state’s adoption of the Common Core State Standards.  It is a positive first step, but I’m finding today that there is confusion about what it actually accomplishes.

Some have told me they believe it is meaningless and then you have headlines such as the one pictured below at The Iowa Republican.

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How I wish the headline “Branstad Executive Order Rejects Federal Common Core” was accurate, but the Common Core was not rejected; the Fed’s propensity lately to inject themselves into state decisions on education was.  On the other hand I disagree that executive order is meaningless. It has some very important language in it.

Let me first of all say to Governor Branstad, thank you.  Thank you for your willingness to engage with Iowans regarding concern over the Common Core State Standards.  It is appreciated.

So what does Executive Order 83 do?  Well here are a few things notable things:

  • Affirms the state of Iowa’s constitutional role in education (more on that later).
  • Affirms that the adoption of standards should be done in an “open, transparent way that include opportunities for Iowans to review and offer input.”  In defense of Governor Branstad, the Common Core was not adopted on his watch so perhaps the adoption process would have looked different had he been governor in 2010.  That said it would be great if Iowans were given that opportunity now.
  • It rejects the Feds requiring states to adopt federal standards as a condition of a federal grant.
  • It protects student privacy by clearing stating what data will be sent to the Federal government.  The data mining concern was primarily rooted in the federal grants behind the creation of Statewide Longitudinal Data Systems, as well as, Iowa’s involvement in the Smarter Balanced Assessment Consortium who has a MOU with the U.S. Department of Education stating they will provide student level data to them.  Iowa has no such agreement with Smarter Balanced or the Federal government.  So the statement, “only aggregate student data shall be provided to the federal government to comply with federal laws” is very important.  Should Smarter Balanced or another third party share student level data from Iowa to the feds they will be in violation of this executive order.
  • It affirms the responsibility of school districts to choose curriculum (more on that below).  School districts don’t have to use the Common Core text exemplar.  They don’t have to cut 70% of classical literature from English classes.  A school can implement informational text in other ways.
  • The Iowa Core (which encompasses the Common Core Math & ELA standards) will be subject to regular review with public feedback to “to determine the contents of and to continually improve state academic standards.”  So basically he’s saying – “if we want to change them, we’ll change them.”
  • This also opens the door for Iowa’s exit from Smarter Balanced, “The State of Iowa, not the federal government or any other organization, shall choose the statewide assessments that will measure how well students have mastered the Iowa Core.”  School districts also have the freedom to use additional assessments.
  • The final statement is a strong one: “No Constitutional right of Iowa children and their families shall be violated through an overreach by the federal government into Iowa’s educational system.”

So what it doesn’t do:

  • It does NOT repeal the Common Core State Standards.  While this executive order addresses future federal injection into standards and assessments it doesn’t address what has already been done.  It does state we have the right to change them, but it doesn’t say we are going to do that now.  The Common Core was adopted by the Iowa Board of Education in 2010 and they are now the Iowa Core’s standards in math and English/Language Arts.  They are still moving forward towards implementation.
  • It does not give 100% local control over curriculum.  The executive order affirms that local school districts are responsible to choose curricula, instruction and learning materials, but it has a caveat – they have to be “consistent with state academic standards.”  The Iowa Department of Education has not, I believe, been in the business of approving curriculum for local school districts.  So as long as a school district can show they are, at the very least, meeting the standards they can probably choose whatever curriculum they want.  Frankly I believe the burden is on the state to prove a school district’s curriculum is not “consistent with state academic standards.”  I also have to see if that can legally be enforced, I don’t believe the Iowa Code gives them the authority to do that.  Parents should apply pressure on school districts to purchase quality curriculum and use teaching methods that are proven to work.  Those who advocate for the Common Core claim they don’t dictate curriculum or pedagogy – well, that should be put to the test.
  • It does not provide specific detail regarding what the review of the standards will look like other than allowing for public comment.  It’s a step, but I don’t like the vagueness here.  If Governor Branstad means a process like what we’ve seen so far with the Next Generation Science Standards then I’m not excited.  The review should include open public hearings when the public can comment (not just a survey), legislative feedback, testimony from those opposed and those in favor.  What we’ve typically seen is a process stacked by Iowa Department of Education bureaucrats in order to lead to a pre-determined outcome.  That isn’t a transparent and open process, that’s a sham.  Also the executive order does not give Iowans an opportunity to provide feedback on the Common Core now.  I think Governor Branstad should look at states like  Wisconsin and Florida who are currently doing public hearings as examples of what should be done.  We should have a statewide discussion by having  hearings throughout the state (at times when the general public can come).  I hope Governor Branstad will make that happen.

A few words on what the Iowa Constitution says about education.

The Governor was right to reaffirm the state’s constitutional role in education.  I wanted to highlight a couple of things.

1.  The Iowa Constitution affirms the General Assembly’s role for encouraging education through financial support.  They only quoted part of what the Iowa Constitution says in section 3 of Article IX.  Here’s the whole context.

“The General Assembly shall encourage, by all suitable means, the promotion of intellectual, scientific, moral, and agricultural improvement.  The proceeds of all lands that have been, or hereafter may be, granted by the United States to this state, for the support of schools, which may have been or shall hereafter be sold, or disposed of, and the five hundred thousand acres of land granted to the new states, under an act of Congress, distributing the proceeds of public lands among the several states of the union, approved in the year of our Lord one thousand eight hundred and forty-one, and all estates of deceased persons who may have died without leaving a will or heir, and also such percent as has been or may hereafter be granted by Congress, on the sale of lands in this state, shall be, and remain a perpetual fund, the interest of which together with all rents of the unsold lands, and such other means as the General Assembly may provide, shall be inviolably appropriated to the support of common schools throughout the state.”

This mainly deals with land grant universities not K-12 education.  But even just addressing the clause they quoted in the executive order – “The General Assembly shall encourage, by all suitable means, the promotion of intellectual, scientific, moral, and agricultural improvement.”  It is the General Assembly who initiates that not the executive branch, not the Iowa Department of Education or the unelected Iowa Board of Education.

2.  The State Legislature has the ultimate constitutional authority in education.

“The General Assembly shall have the power to abolish or reorganize said board of education, and provide for the educational interest of the state in any other manner that to them shall seem best and proper,” (Iowa Constitution art. IX, 1d, § 15).

So with that the state legislature is well within its rights to reestablish how educational standards are determined in this state.  Notice also the language here – “provide,” “support,” and “encourage” – I don’t sense that the writers of the Iowa Constitution had in mind mandates written in the form of rules in administrative code compiled by the Iowa Department of Education or frankly even mandates coming from the state legislature.  Those verbs lend themselves more to the state’s financial support of public education.  Just saying.

Conclusion:

Governor Branstad’s executive order is a positive first step in addressing concerns about the Common Core.  It does not negate legislative action, it does not address all of the concerns, and it is not the endgame.  The debate continues, but it is a positive, helpful development in addressing the future of education policy in the state.

Photo credit: Gage Skidmore via Flickr (CC-By-SA 2.0)

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  • Justin Arnold

    Great work Shane…I have heard the same mixed reviews on this throughout the day. Keep it up!!

    • http://shanevanderhart.com/ Shane Vander Hart

      Thanks!

  • Joy Pullmann

    Wait, Shane–I want to know more on Iowa not having an agreement with Smarter Balanced. You all have no MOU? What IS the arrangement between Iowa and Smarter Balanced, then, and where is it written on paper?

    • http://shanevanderhart.com/ Shane Vander Hart

      By the way, I’m not doing a happy dance over the executive order and going to keep pressing for legislation.

      • Joy Pullmann

        Was that meant to answer my questions?

      • http://shanevanderhart.com/ Shane Vander Hart

        No, you must have missed my first comment.