The Public-Private Partnership: How Private Entities Developed the Common Core and Enlisted the Federal Government to Drive It Into the States

This is the third in a series about the report released by American Principles in Action, ThePulse2016, and Cornerstone Policy Research Action.  Permission has been granted for text from Common Core Report: Grading the 2016 GOP Candidates to be published on Stop Common Core in Washington State.  The Executive Summary from the report was published in the first post.    The second post in the series was The Need for a Scorecard.  Here is the second section.

2. The Public-Private Partnership: How Private Entities Developed the Common Core and Enlisted the Federal Government to Drive It Into the States

Within a few short months in 2010, the vast majority of states committed to the Common Core and its attendant system of policy changes. This happened as a result of the heavy hand of the U.S. Department of Education (USED) and its responsiveness to the private entities that drove the process. The Standards were pushed into the states with little, if any, notice to parents and other citizens and in a way that circumvented the usual checks and balances in the constitutional structure. Understanding how that happened is crucial to understanding what’s wrong with American education and why government does not work as intended.

Two private organizations – the National Governors Association (NGA) and the Council of Chief State School Officers (CCSSO) – developed, and own, the standards. They also have a copyright on them.7 It is because of the seminal involvement of NGA and CCSSO that Common Core proponents proclaim that it is a state-led initiative. The reality, though, is far from that.

Those entities were, and are, merely private trade associations acting without a grant of authority from any state. They developed the Common Core in response to massive private funding, most notably from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.8 From the Gates Foundation alone, NGA, its partners, and Student Achievement Partners – another private entity heavily involved in advancing the Common Core — have accepted an estimated $147.9 million for a variety of purposes, $32.8 million of which is expressly earmarked to advance Common Core.9 Overall the Gates Foundation spent, as of 2013, an estimated $173.5 million in advancing the Common Core.10 To date, it has spent far more than that.

The Gates foundation’s footprint on education policy-making is enormous. It has funded a wide range of other entities that includes, but is not limited to, National Association of State Boards of Education, Education Commission of the States, PTA associations, Military Child Education Coalition, Council of State Governments, National Writing Project, National Council of Teachers of English, American Association of School Administrators, American Federation of Teachers Educational Foundation, National Education Association Foundation for the Improvement of Education, American Legislative Exchange Council, and WestEd.11 In furtherance of the NGA Common Core product, the Gates Foundation has even funded state entities including the Colorado, Delaware, Georgia, Kentucky, Louisiana, and Pennsylvania departments of education, as well as local education offices in Indiana, Ohio, and New Mexico. The Gates funding footprint extends to the College Board – owner of the SAT and Advanced Placement tests — to which Gates has provided over $32 million in funding since 2001. In fact, the College Board’s president, David Coleman, was one of the architects and chief writers of the Common Core and, upon his appointment by the College Board, stated his intention to align the SAT to the Common Core.12

The plan was to create a national education system of common standards, national assessments aligned to the standards, and teacher and school evaluations tied to the assessments. In late 2008, with President-elect Obama preparing to take office, those entities, along with their partner Achieve, Inc., published their education transition plan, Benchmarking for Success.13 It encouraged the federal government to provide funding to states to, among other things:

  • “[u]pgrade state standards by adopting a common core of internationally benchmarked standards in math and language arts for grades K-12 . . .”
  • “ensure that textbooks, digital media, curricula, and assessments are aligned” to the standards
  • “offer a range of tiered incentives to make the next stage of the journey easier, including increased flexibility in the use of federal funds and in meeting federal educational requirements . . . ”
  • “revise state policies for recruiting, preparing, developing, and supporting teachers and school leaders to reflect the human capital practices of top performing nations and states around the world.”14

These ideas served as the basis of USED’s Race to the Top grant competition program — which USED funded with money from the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009, PL 111-5, enacted on February 17, 2009 (the “Stimulus Bill”). The Stimulus Bill created a $4.35 billion earmark for states “that have made significant progress” in meeting four education-reform objectives, including taking steps to improve state standards and enhancing the quality of academic assessments.15 Thus, contrary to what many politicians and Common Core proponents claim, the Obama Administration did not “hijack” the Common Core. Rather, the Common Core owners and developers asked the Administration to spearhead the process of driving the standards into the states.

As set forth below, the enactment of the Stimulus Bill on February 17, 200916 set into motion three dynamics that unfolded through 2010: (1) USED began preparing the Race to the Top grant competition program for the states; (2) under tremendous pressure to obtain as much Stimulus money as possible as an antidote to the widely forecast impending fiscal and economic calamity, most states began positioning themselves to win money in the grant competition against other states; and (3) NGA, CCSSO, and Achieve began to develop the Common Core Standards through a private process.17 Even though at this point the Common Core standards had not been drafted, USED followed the lead of NGA and CCSSO and began herding the states into their adoption.

The week following the Stimulus Bill’s passage, Education Secretary Arne Duncan announced in a C-SPAN interview that USED would distribute this Stimulus earmark to the states through a competitive grant program called Race to the Top. Through that process, USED would identify a “set number of states” that would commit to high common standards, “great assessments,” and building “a great data system so that you can track those students throughout their academic career.” When asked whether he envisioned “national standards for every kid across all subjects and national tests,” the Secretary replied, “We want to get into this game . . . . There are great outside partners — Achieve, the Gates Foundation [Achieve co-authored Benchmarking for Success and the Gates Foundation funded it], others — who are providing great leadership . . . . I want to be the one to help it come to fruition.”18

On March 7, 2009, one month after passage of the Stimulus Bill, USED announced the Race to the Top “national competition” to distribute the Stimulus money through two rounds of grant awards.19

On June 1, 2009, NGA and CCSSO formally launched their Common Core Standards Initiative to develop and implement the Common Core – the effort referred to by Secretary Duncan several months earlier. Before they had actually developed the standards, NGA and CCSSO made qualitative promises, including that the standards would be the result of “a state-led process”; that the standards would “be internationally benchmarked” and “research- and evidence-based”; and that “no state will see a decrease in the level of student expectations.”20 They planned to “leverage states’ collective influence to ensure that textbooks, digital media, curricula, and assessments are aligned” with the Standards. At the time, CCSSO President-elect Sue Gendron, who was subsequently policy advisor and coordinator for one of the federal assessment consortia, described the initiative as “transforming education for every child.”21

In its Race to the Top request for applications, USED changed Congress’s Stimulus Bill objectives from general improvement of state standards and assessments to acquiescence to specific federal dictates.22 These dictates included the following:

  1. adopting internationally benchmarked standards and assessments that prepare students for success in college and the workplace;
  2. building data systems that measure student success and inform teachers and principals about how they can improve their practices;
  3. increasing teacher and principal effectiveness and achieving equity intheir distribution; and
  4. turning around the lowest-achieving schools.23

Notably, with respect to the “standards and assessments” objective, the Race to the Top restatement tracked the language of the NGA-CCSSO-Achieve Benchmarking for Success plan issued in December 2008.24 Furthermore, it designated the four reform objectives as “absolute priorities,” meaning that an applicant state had to address them to be considered for funding.25

It is beyond dispute that USED wanted all the states to adopt the Common Core Standards. Its Race to the Top request for state applications defined “internationally benchmarked standards” as a “common set of K-12 standards” that are “substantially identical across all States in a consortium.”26 It directed the competition judges to award a state “high” points “if the consortium includes a majority of the States in the country,” but “medium or low” points if the consortium includes one-half the states or fewer.27 USED admitted that the “goal of common K-12 standards is to replace the existing patchwork of State standards” and that its view was “that the larger the number of States within a consortium, the greater the benefits and potential impact.”28 At that late date in the process, the only effort that qualified under this language was the Common Core, which at that point had well over half the governors committed to it as a political, rather than as a legal, matter.29 USED thus discouraged states from forming competing consortia, and the NGA, for its part, exacted endorsements from governors that, although not enforceable, locked down their political commitments.

Through the assessment (standardized test) component of Race to the Top, USED further bound the applicant states to the national standards. The Race to the Top applications required that states, as one of the competition’s “absolute priorities,” participate “in a consortium of States that … [i]s working toward jointly developing and implementing common, high-quality assessments (as defined in this notice) aligned with the consortium’s common set of K-12 standards (as defined in this notice) . . . .”30 To this end, the Stimulus Bill authorized $362 million in funding “to consortia of states to develop assessments . . . and measure student achievement against standards.”31 USED used that money to award grants to the Partnership for Assessment of Readiness of College and Careers (“PARCC”) consortium and the SMARTER Balanced Assessment Consortium (“SBAC”), two entities that were formed for the purpose of applying for Race to the Top money.32 In signing on as a full member of one of these assessment consortia, a state committed itself to adopting the Common Core and to using the consortium’s assessments. By implication a state also committed itself to junking its own assessments and standards. Both consortia’s memoranda of agreement (SBAC’s explicitly so) required the states to commit to the Common Core.33

States had to commit to the standards and assessments without having a meaningful opportunity to evaluate either product. NGA and its partners drafted the Common Core standards through an opaque and unprofessional development process.34 State involvement amounted to little more than suggestion-box input, none of which remotely involved individual states’ systems of checks and balances and public processes.
The development process sheds further light on the private nature of Common Core’s origins. For example, the process was not subject to open-meeting requirements, public notice-requirements, or freedom of information requests. It lacked the checks and balances of a public process that ensure that policy reflects the will of the people. And the project itself was predicated on monopoly, thus preventing quality-ensuring competition.

The limited state role was only exacerbated by the short timeline for Common Core’s development. The continuing federal timeline is revealing:

  • November 18, 2009 — USED invited applications for Phase I of Race to the Top.
  • January 19, 2010 — Deadline for submission of applications. At this time, the Standards had not been completed.
  • February 22, 2010 – In a speech to NGA, President Obama made clear his intention that states would ultimately have to adopt the Common Core to receive federal Title I education funding:

I also want to commend all of you for acting collectively through the National Governors’ Association to develop common academic standards that will better position our students for success. . . . we’re calling for a redesigned Elementary and Secondary Education Act that better aligns the federal approach to your state-led efforts while offering you the support you need. . . . First, as a condition of receiving access to Title I funds, we will ask all states to put in place a plan to adopt and certify standards that are college and career-ready in reading and math


  • March 2010 – USED released A Blueprint for Reform, which stated, “Beginning in 2015, formula [Title I] funds will be available only to states that are implementing assessments based on college and career ready standards that are common to a significant number of states.”36
  • March 2010 ( two months after states had submitted their Phase I Race to the Top applications) — NGA and CCSSO issued a public draft of the Common Core Standards.
  • April 14, 2010 — USED invited applications for Phase II of Race to the Top.
  • June 1, 2010 – Deadline for submitting applications for Phase II.
  • June 2, 2010 — NGA issued the final K-12 Common Core Standards. Significantly, in certain respects the quality of the standards declined from the March draft to the final product.37
  • August 2, 2010 — Deadline for amending states’ Race to the Top submissions to provide “evidence of having adopted common standards after June 1, 2010.”

Thus, to be competitive for a share of the $4.35 billion Race to the Top fund, applicant states had to adopt the Common Core with, at most, two summer months to evaluate the final product, compare it to their current standards, discuss the matter with their citizens, and commit to replace their standards with the Common Core. Even that description is charitable. As noted above, when it signed onto one of the federally sponsored testing consortia, the state had committed itself to using standardized tests aligned to the standards. At that point, to reverse course would have caused state policymakers enormous political embarrassment. To make matters worse, the federally sponsored tests were not fully developed until years later.

But that is not all USED did to impose its education policies on the states. For one thing, it used the federally funded assessments explicitly as a way to develop and impose Common Core-aligned curricula. Both consortia, as Secretary Duncan has said, “will help their member states provide the tools and professional development needed to assist teachers’ transitions to the new assessments.” For PARCC, this includes “curriculum frameworks” 38 and “model instructional units.”39 Similarly, SBAC is using the federal funding “to develop curriculum materials” and to create “a model curriculum” and “instructional materials” aligned with the Standards.40 In The Road to a National Curriculum, Robert Eitel and Kent Talbert, the former deputy general counsel and general counsel, respectively, of USED, concluded:

The assessment systems that PARCC and SBAC develop and leverage with federal funds, together with their hands-on assistance in implementing the [Standards] will direct large swaths of state K-12 curricula, programs of instruction and instructional materials, as well as heavily influence the remainder.41

Moreover, USED clearly signaled its intent for continued involvement: (1) It required the consortia “to make student-level data that result from the assessment system available on an ongoing basis for research, including for prospective linking, validity, and program improvement studies” and (2) it gutted, through unauthorized regulatory changes, federal family and student privacy protections in order to do so.

USED made it clear that the adoption of these national standards, assessments, and curricula would be cemented regardless of the outcome of the Race to the Top competition. USED’s Phase I request for applications required states to submit a plan “demonstrating [the state’s] commitment to and progress toward adopting a common set of K-12 standards (as defined in this notice) by August 2, 2010 … and to implementing the standards in a well-planned way.”42 The request for Phase II applications required states to have adopted “a common set of K-12 standards (as defined in this notice) by August 2, 2010” and to demonstrate their “commitment to implementing the standards thereafter in a meaningful way.”43 States were thus in a competition to see which ones could most firmly adopt USED’s agenda before the two grant application due dates. The race was on.

At this point, it’s worth mentioning that this is a threshold issue for presidential candidates: Will they “stand at the constitutional line44” – and have they done so – to prevent the federal government’s natural inclination to expand its footprint? How, specifically, do they propose to do this? Will it just be the policy of their Administration, or do they propose systemic changes to prevent future train-wrecks?

UntitledThe footnotes are available in the full report.  You can download the full report by clicking on Common Core Report: Grading the 2016 GOP Candidates.

This entry was posted in Common Core, Data Mining / Privacy, Developmentally Inappropriate, Financial Implications, Funding, Loss of Local Control, Origination of CCSS, Protection of Pupil Rights, Uncategorized and tagged , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

4 Responses to The Public-Private Partnership: How Private Entities Developed the Common Core and Enlisted the Federal Government to Drive It Into the States

  1. Pingback: Common Core System | Stop Common Core in Washington State

  2. Pingback: The Common Core Standards Lock Children Into an Inferior Education | Stop Common Core in Washington State

  3. Pingback: The Common Core Pushback | Stop Common Core in Washington State

  4. Pingback: Making Big Ideas Into Small Ideas: The GOP Tendency | Stop Common Core in Washington State

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