"But if it is believed that these elementary schools will be better managed by...any other general authority of the government, than by the parents within each ward [district], it is a belief against all experience." --Thomas Jefferson

Saturday, July 28, 2012

Common Core: When Does Voluntary Become Involuntary?

(This is sixth in the series. Click to read the other posts on Common Core: Intro, Part 1, Part 2, Part 3, Part 4.)

If Utah is committed to a legally-binding agreement, should those elected officials who made that agreement have read it?  Should they have submitted it to legal counsel for a review?  Should they have voted, in a public meeting, debating the merits of the contract PRIOR to having their representative sign it? 

If so, you need to contact ALL the members of the State Board of Education BEFORE Friday, Aug. 3.  Here is a link to their email addresses.  Read on for more information.

For fifteen months, since I found out about the Feds funding the Common Core tests (assessments), I have been very concerned with Common Core.  To me, the lynch pin of the entire thing rests on the testing.  Those of us who bring up the loss of local control and giving greater power to the Feds are always told something like: Common Core is voluntary.  The Feds aren't involved.  We can get out anytime we want.  Since I started all my research on Common Core, some additional pieces of information/evidence have come to light.  The most important piece of this evidence is the contract Utah has signed with the testing consortium, Smarter Balanced Assessment Consortium (SBAC).

From the beginning of Common Core in 2009, the State Board and State Office of Ed (USOE) have been involved in a consortium of states writing the standards, and then deciding between the two testing consortia.  Some of our USOE employees have been involved on committees and as consultants in these endeavors.  In every instance I have found, there has been discussion about maintaining Utah's independence and sovereignty.  However, this has been weighed against the desire to get additional funds, tests, not reinventing the wheel, etc. as Common Core has been rolled out across the nation.  In my personal discussions with staff and State Board Members, they are consistently pointing to their desire to maintain Utah's independence, and I believe them.  However, I have read other documents that indicate this independence has been compromised, and, it has been done without the direct consent and/or knowledge of our elected representatives. 

In January, 2010, Utah applied to receive money from the 2009 stimulus package under the Federal Race to the Top program.  We didn't qualify for the funds, so we submitted our application again for Phase 2 in June, 2010.   We didn't receive any of those funds either.  However, in the Phase 2 application, we replaced a non-binding agreement with SBAC with a legally-binding agreement* that was signed by the Governor, the State Superintendent, and the State Board President.  This past April, State Board President Debra Roberts said the agreement was not legally binding because the board never voted on it.  Other board members believe it is legally binding.  Within that document, we agreed to several things.  Some of those are:

1. Adopt Common Core standards for the state (p.3).
2. Implement the full complement of SBAC tests by 2014-15 school year (p.3).
3. Determine and work to change any state laws that would prevent the use of the SBAC tests or any other part of our agreement (p.3).
4. Abide by the governance and agreements of SBAC (p.3).
5. To exit SBAC, receive approval of our request from the US Department of Education (p.12).

Additionally, SBAC, upon receiving $159 million from the Federal government, signed a Cooperative Agreement that commits SBAC (and its members) to an on-going relationship with the Feds for testing development and reporting student data.  Because of our involvement with SBAC, we are equally constrained by this agreement with the Feds.  So, even though Utah never signed or agreed to anything from the Feds, our agreement with SBAC does so on our behalf. 

A retired appellate court judge, Norman Jackson, reviewed these documents at the request of some parents.  He concluded that the US Dept of Ed does not have to grant any state's request to exit the consortium.  He also stated that the agreements legally bind Utah to implementing the testing and the standards, as dictated by the Federal Government.
In no board meeting minutes is there evidence that the actual SBAC agreement was discussed or legal issues raised.  No vote, no contractual review, just general info on SBAC.  Based on this lack of information in the minutes, the Board was not aware of the implications of this agreement.  In short, it appears that many of the State Board Members had not read this contract prior to its signing, and may not have even known of its existence, until concerned citizens found it.

Having said that, some of these members want to exit SBAC completely.  A vote to withdraw from SBAC was taken in Feb., 2012, and failed 4 -10.  On Aug. 3, the board is scheduled to vote again on our association with SBAC.  I would like to encourage you to encourage them to withdraw completely from this association.  While the Board's desire to withdraw will trigger a letter to SBAC, our formal withdrawl will be contingent on approval from the US Dept of Ed.  I assume that just prior to an election, there would not be any reason for the Dept of Ed to hold Utah to an agreement it wishes to exit.  After November, I would be less certain. In short, we voluntarily entered a prison of our own (and other states') making.  How easy will it be to withdraw?  Much more so, if we show our support to our State Board members who are willing to exit this agreement with SBAC, and, by association, the Feds.  Please ask them to review the two contracts (Utah and SBAC and SBAC and the Feds), and to commit to voting to get out of that agreement.

*The Race to the Top application on the US Dept of Ed website is the only place I have found a copy of the SBAC agreement (although I requested it from the USOE in November, 2011).  It can be found on pages 286-302 of a nearly 500-page application.  The 500-page application is too large to email.  The Keep Education Local site just pulled those 17 pages from the RTTT application obtained from the US Dept of Ed site.  I have linked to both sites, so you can see them for yourself.