In his South Carolina victory speech Saturday night, Donald Trump spent an unusual amount of time outlining his vision, such as it is, for demolishing Common Core, which, to hear him tell it, has forced the educational bureaucracy of Washington, D.C., on unsuspecting classrooms all over America. Of his plans for winning America’s educational future, Trump said:
Common Core is gone. We are getting rid of Common Core. We’re bringing education to a local level. The people in this community—every time I see them, they want education locally. The parents, the teachers. They want to do it—they don’t want bureaucrats in Washington telling them how to educate their children.
There was nothing new in this light-on-facts rhetoric, which echoes that of other GOP candidates. Trump has made the same easily debunked claims, which seem to be the whole of his K–12 platform, in nearly identical language, before.
As Slate has previously noted, bashing the once-bipartisan Common Core educational standards is all the rage among Republican candidates: Only two contenders in the crowded GOP field this cycle, Ohio Gov. John Kasich and former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush, have dared defend them. Bush—the only candidate on either side to have offered a substantive K–12 plan—suspended his campaign on Saturday night, minutes before Trump’s vague promise to “bring education to a local level.”
But at the end of the day, Trump and other candidates’ courageous stands against Common Core are mostly meaningless, because Common Core has almost nothing to do with the office of the chief executive or those faceless “bureaucrats in Washington.” Common Core is not, as many people assume, a set curriculum but rather a series of K–12 academic benchmarks for both math and English language arts that, according to the Common Core website, “outline what a student should know and be able to do at the end of each grade.” What’s more, Common Core wasn’t cooked up by anonymous Washington automatons; it was developed by governors and state education commissioners, then passed by a total of 42 state legislatures, along with the District of Columbia and four territories.
Michael Hansen, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution, says candidates who say they’ll “end” Common Core as president are simply grandstanding. No president can end the Common Core, because it’s not a federal law. And, with the end of the Race to the Top initiative last year, the federal government no longer funds the standards, even indirectly.
To roll back the Common Core, a president would have to go back and rewrite the Every Student Succeeds Act—which, reminder, Congress just passed in December after years of false starts and nuanced back-and-forth negotiations—and strip out its language around college- and career-ready standards. But even then, the ESSA doesn’t mandate those standards—it just recommends guidelines.
In order to “get rid of” the Common Core, President Trump would have to figure out a way to lobby those states to ditch the standards on their own, which—in addition to being a huge waste of taxpayer money—represents a massive hurdle no president is likely to mount, since the states that adopted the standards are still for the most part using them (even if they’ve artfully renamed them).
“I acknowledge Donald Trump is a very wealthy individual, and if he did want to end [Common Core], I’m sure he could fund the lobbying efforts to get down on the ground level and begin to make that happen,” Hansen says. “So, are there possibilities that Donald Trump could end this? Yes. But they are extraordinary possibilities and they are well outside of the power of the executive.”
The president couldn’t even strip funding from states that chose not to undo the Common Core, as current funding isn’t conditional on adopting the standards. In addition to rewriting the ESSA to remove recommending college- and career-ready standards, Congress would also have to add in language that strips states of federal funding if they don’t dump the Common Core. And, given that it took Congress eight years to cobble together a new education bill after the expiration of No Child Left Behind, well, it “strains credibility to believe that would actually happen,” as Hansen puts it (rather mildly).
At the moment, most federal funding going toward education is Title I money, which gives additional money to schools with high concentrations of impoverished students. “Such a move would, in a sense, make Title I money into a political football around whether states would repeal the Common Core, and I don’t see that as a winning strategy,” Hansen says. Is putting the most at-risk kids in the country even more at risk really a battle Republicans want to wage in the name of killing Common Core? (The House Republicans already tried a similar move with a Title I portability provision in their version of ESSA, and it didn’t go anywhere.)
In any event, states would probably dismiss any attempt by the federal government to end the Common Core, since they’ve just devoted millions of dollars and years of effort to shifting their entire educational systems to accommodate the new standards. It’s not a matter of simply starting from scratch with lesson plans: It would require rewriting textbooks and purchasing new ones, rewriting tests that the states just spent a bunch of money developing, and spending even more money retraining teachers on the new requirements.
Even states that claim they’ve done away with Common Core are really just talking. Why spend the money and time actually starting over when you can just say you did? Chris Christie, another now-also-ran of the 2016 cycle, stood on stage at a debate and told the world that Common Core was no longer the law of the land in New Jersey. That was a total lie, as we’ve pointed out before. The students there still take tests aligned with Common Core standards, and the “new” standards are almost identical to the ones that used to be called “Common Core.”
New Jersey, like the 41 other states that have adopted the standards, has simply invested too much to be sidetracked by a president with a megaphone screaming about the evils of federal oversight. It’s ending Common Core that would require massive on-high interventions from D.C., not the other way around.