MY LAST NERVE: Is Common Core Dead in S.C.? Nobody Knows.

July 1, 2014

Inside Insight

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marion gressette buildingA BOARD, A DEPARTMENT, A COMMITTEE, TWO SENATORS, AND NO CLARITY

A meeting in the Gressette Office Building yesterday (the state Senate office building on the State House grounds) reminded me of spats I used to have with my sister. Our parents would listen patiently to both sides, and at some point they’d tell us to be quiet and explain what the deal was.

Playing the parents’ role was Sen. John Courson (R- Richland) and Sen. Wes Hayes (R- York). Playing the role of squabbling siblings were representatives from the Department of Education (DOE), the Education Oversight Committee (EOC), and the State Board of Education (State Board).

Not that anybody behaved unprofessionally. On the contrary, everyone was respectful. But the whole thing arose from confusion, and since that confusion arose from South Carolina’s bewildering government structure, Sens. Courson and Hayes weren’t quite able to clarify the situation as they’d hoped.

The immediate issue had to do with confusion over what a recent bill passed by the General Assembly actually means. The bill – it’s now law – requires the EOC and the State Board to review – not replace, but review – the state’s Common Core-aligned math and English standards, adopted in 2010. Many have understood this to mean that the Legislature eliminated Common Core in South Carolina, and that any new standards must be distinctly different. That’s not the case. Indeed, as my colleague Dillon Jones argued last week in the Greenville News, the real danger is that any new standards will be a rebranded version of Common Core.

That’s a danger because the new law is very specific: Any new standards must be – as Melanie Barton of the EOC correctly pointed out – “college and career ready.” The EOC, said Barton, is currently in the process of finding out exactly what “college and career ready” means from the U.S. Department of Education. Why do we need to find out what the feds think? Because in order to maintain the state’s waiver from certain provisions of the federal No Child Left Behind law, our standards have to be “college and career ready.” It may be that “college and career ready” looks very much like Common Core – or, to borrow Jones’ term, Common Core Lite.

As usual, then, South Carolina must dance to a tune whistled in Washington.

The deeper issue is our government structure. In South Carolina, three different entities have to be involved in the review and implementation of our academic standards – the Department of Education, the Education Oversight Committee, and the State Board of Education. The Department must write the standards, and the EOC and State Board have to approve them. The latter two have signaled a commitment to Common Core, while the DOE (led by Superintendent Mick Zais) opposes it.

Barry Bolen, chairman of the State Board, noted that there are “two different groups going in two different directions” on reviewing the state standards – he meant the State Board and the Department of Education. He went on to say that if the DOE already had a panel in place to review standards, there wouldn’t be a need for the EOC to create another panel, and maybe the two panels could be merged with representation from all parties.

Yeah. You see what I mean. Confused yet?

Seriously, though – does the state need this many entities reviewing, writing, and approving education standards? Which one of them do parents go to if they’re persuaded – as many South Carolinians are – that current standards should be reformed or scrapped? Nobody really knows.

A bill proposed this year would have gone a long way toward reforming the structure of our education system: It would have eliminated the EOC and given many of its functions to the DOE and the State Board. This would have helped to clarify lines of accountability and made situations like this one – in which not even state policymakers know fully what’s going on, never mind parents and teachers – much less likely. Unfortunately, that proposal didn’t even get a hearing in this year’s session.

So thanks to the state’s government structure, we’re basically right back where we started. Don’t bother asking Mom and Dad what the deal is. They don’t know.

Jamie Murguia is Research Director at the S.C. Policy Council