Red Tide

A lot of speculation about what last week’s political changes mean. But an overlooked aspect is what happened at the state level.  If the national elections were a wave, then the states are where the real tsunami hit.  The changes are still being tallied but it looks like at least 675 legislative seats changed from D to R (and likely more) flipping more than a dozen state chambers (turns out Gillespie was wrong – on the low side).  This NSCL map gives a sense of the landscape now. Punchline:  Red.

A lot of folks now think that with regard to Common Core, Race to the Top, and other federal initiatives this won’t be such a big deal.  That’s likely wrong for two reasons.

First, around initiatives like Race to the Top the idea that the result will be states veering wildly off-course is the wrong way to look at this.   We’re less likely to see a state that committed to doing X, suddenly announce it’s doing Y.  Instead, what will happen is that states will do less of X than they said, or just a weak version of X.  This is a problem because on education even when states say X and do Y the federal government has a lousy track record of holding them accountable.   And because these are always political situations arguing that they’re not really doing X because they’re doing less X or weak X is a hard political case for any administration to make, especially one in a political hole.  This means – compounding the unevenness of the states that won Race to the Top – you could see even more variance in implementation quality.   Absent a few states that really knock the cover off the ball that’s going to be a problem in a few years when the serious evaluations start.

Second, as often happens in big wave elections, a lot of people without a great deal of political and policy experience just swept into office.  As a result they’ll find out before too long that many of the decisions they’re facing are more complicated than the rhetoric.  By way of two national examples, all the incoming anti-No Child Left Behind Democrats the past few cycles got a wake-up call when they arrived in Washington and found that liberals like Democratic Rep. George Miller (CA) supported the law.  Similarly, Republican Rep. John Kline (R-MN), incoming chair of the House Education and Labor Committee is already tamping down enthusiasm to abolish the Department of Education among his new members.

So, when these state representatives discover that some of their big plans would involve hard choices like cutting state services that voters actually like, furloughing prisoners, and so forth, items that allow for them to make their point without a big price tag suddenly become political gold.  That’s where initiatives like Common Core face some risk over the next couple of years.  Attacking it is an issue without a large fiscal cost in most places and there are plenty of ways to get political traction (assessments, differing curricular experts, federal overreach).   In fact, when we asked the “insiders” we survey for “Education Insider” for their views on Common Core adoption numbers when all the dust settled more than a third thought that 30 states or less would ultimately adopt and one five thought that figure would be twenty or less.  Obviously that’s fewer than have committed to today.  In addition, 68 percent thought the elections would hurt momentum for Common Core (these are September 2010 numbers).  And remember, these are the most plugged-in people in education policy and many have state policymaking experience.

Stay tuned.

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