Christie's Common Core Conundrum

By now, everyone is aware that New Jersey Governor and possible Presidential GOP candidate Chris Christie has announced that the state is pulling out of Common Core.  His stated reason is that after five years, it is not having its intended effects and is causing disruptions and conflicts between teachers, students, and parents.  The problem is Christie should have had this epiphany five years ago.

No one on the Left or the Right is against strengthening educational standards.  The differences are in how we go about it and how we gauge it.  The Left prefers the top-down method with the federal government at the top.  The Right prefers a bottom-up method with standards established by the states and local school boards.  In this regard, the Left should favor Common Core- and they do.  Their “opposition” is not against Common Core per se, but more about how achievement of those standards are gauged.  In short, their total opposition is to the standardized testing that surrounds Common Core.  The Right, on the other hand, sees the need for some standardized testing to gauge the effectiveness of any standard and to make comparisons across state lines.  Looked at this way, the Right should reject Common Core, but retain the testing regimen- the PARCC test.  This is exactly what Christie has proposed.

But here is the problem: the PARCC test is based strictly upon the Common Core curriculum.  Therefore, it makes no intuitive sense to reject one but retain the other.  They must both be thrown out altogether and replaced simultaneously.  Teachers have adapted to the Common Core curriculum although it leads to a one size fits all manner of teaching.  The over-reliance on the test further creates a “teach to the test” mentality.

Thus, Christie’s logic in rejecting Common Core yet retaining the PARCC test is internally inconsistent.  Furthermore, his change of heart comes about before his own commission on Common Core has released their findings and recommendations (they are due in July).  As a result, this comes off as a politically expedient exercise to garner primary votes among the conservative base.

The third nail in his coffin is his past comments on Common Core.  In 2013, less than two years ago, he stated:

We’re doing Common Core in New Jersey and we’re going to continue.  And this is one of those areas where I’ve agreed more with the President than not.

So what has changed in less than two years?  The frustration felt by parents, teachers and students is no less palpable in 2015 than it was in 2013.  When he made that comment, the “failings” of Common Core were already being documented.  It is why he created a commission in the first place.  Furthermore, there were bills in the state legislature pending at the time designed to delay the implementation of the PARCC testing regime and to look into Common Core and possibly withdraw.  That was in 2014, but the creation of his commission scuttled those efforts.

Fourth, today Christie states that one of his reasons for abandoning Common Core is that he views it as a federal takeover of the K-12 curriculum.  Really?  It took this self-proclaimed conservative five years to realize this?

There is one area where he is partially correct and that is how Common Core was “forced” upon the states.  In the midst of the financial meltdown of 2008, states became strapped for cash.  As a temporary means to bridge budget gaps due to declining revenue, many states applied for Race to the Top grants under the Stimulus Bill.  If one remembers, Christie fired his first Commissioner of Education, Brett Schundler, for failing to correctly complete paperwork for a $400 million grant.  These grants were the gateway to Common Core; accept it and get the grant.  In fact, that is the basis for Bobby Jindal’s lawsuit against the federal government.

But with Christie, this accusation also rings a little hollow.  No state budget was spared the financial crisis, yet several states rejected Common Core or withdrew soon after accepting it.  For New Jersey, the problem is financial.  School districts rely too heavily on property taxes for revenue and with declining property values, foreclosures and people losing jobs, less money flowed into the school district budgets.  While it is laudable that Christie tried to reign in property taxes- still the highest in the country after 6 years with Christie as Governor- he violated a well-worn rule usually violated by liberals: the law of unintended consequences.

Most importantly, once the Common Core genie is out of the bottle for this length of time, it is that much harder to get it back into that bottle.  What is happening now and what teachers and administrators and ultimately students and parents are about to experience (if they haven’t already) is policy fatigue.  Take the case of Indiana which accepted Common Core only to reject it a year later under Mitch Daniels’ leadership.  It was much easier to implement new standards and devise a new test after one year of Common Core than it is after five years of Common Core.  In practically every state that later rejected it after implementation, the longer one waited, the greater the new state-devised standards looked suspiciously like Common Core, only with a new name.

What is egregious about this politically expedient ploy is that there will be policy fatigue as a result.  Already teachers and school districts are asking what will replace Common Core.  Considering he is maintaining the PARCC test, one could guess pretty much the same only with a new name.

Leaving aside his embrace of Obama and “Bridgegate (they play bigger to Christie detractors outside New Jersey), there is much in his resume to discount him as the ultimate GOP candidate.  Unemployment remains high while job growth is weak and brain and population drain from the state strong.  His alleged pension reforms are in serious danger while the transportation trust fund is going broke.  Property taxes remain among the highest in the country despite the caps while municipalities have resorted to increasing user fees- a hidden tax.  He recently settled a $9 billion lawsuit against ExxonMobil for $225 million- pennies on the dollar.  His phony capitalism exploits in Atlantic City are backfiring while the state has suffered through several bond rating downgrades.  This Common Core debacle is only the latest reason to reject Christie as the GOP’s choice in 2016.