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Ted Cruz can’t repeal Common Core

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Libby Nelson is Vox's policy editor, leading coverage of how government action and inaction shape American life. Libby has more than a decade of policy journalism experience, including at Inside Higher Ed and Politico. She joined Vox in 2014.

Sen. Ted Cruz has made "repeal Common Core" a rallying cry for his presidential campaign. But that raises a question his campaign is having trouble answering: what, exactly, would he repeal?

The standards were developed and voluntarily adopted by states, albeit with some heavy encouragement from Washington. There is no federal Common Core law to uproot.

So Bloomberg's Dave Weigel asked Cruz's spokeswoman how he would repeal Common Core, and got this answer:

"Common Core is a federally created curriculum that the state's 'Race to the Top' grants are tied to," offered Catherine Frazier, a spokeswoman for Cruz. "So if the state does not adopt the standards, it gives up the grant money. But since the federal government created this mess, there should be a way to undo it."

The federal government didn't solely create this mess. In office, Cruz could de-emphasize Common Core. But the best way to wipe out the standards entirely would be to adopt the same tactics he hated when the Obama administration used them.

The Obama administration promoted Common Core, but didn't require it

Obama Race to the Top

President Obama talks about Race to the Top in 2010. (Getty Images News)

The Obama administration very actively promoted Common Core, created some financial incentives for states to adopt the standards, and took credit when nearly every state signed up for the shared expectations in language arts and math. But their attempts stopped short of actually mandating Common Core, which means there isn't a clear-cut policy for Cruz to reverse.

Cruz's spokeswoman implied to Weigel that Cruz would focus on the Race to the Top grants, a $4.3 billion competitive grant program for states that began in 2010. States got points in the competition for working in groups to come up with shared standards, and for adopting tests based on those standards. There was only one group like that: the 48 states working together on Common Core.

Unsurprisingly, every state that won the grants was a Common Core state. Technically speaking, though, Common Core wasn't a requirement — Virginia, which never adopted Common Core, scored higher in the competition than some states that did adopt the standards, even though it didn't win.

But the real problem for Cruz is Race to the Top is winding down; it wasn't funded at all in the spending bill Congress passed in December. Cruz could tell Race to the Top states they could abandon Common Core and not suffer any penalties, but that's pretty meaningless in 2017, when the money will have run out anyway.

The other tactic the Obama administration used to encourage Common Core was waivers from some penalties under No Child Left Behind. States that wanted waivers had to prove they had "college- and career-ready standards." But they didn't have to adopt Common Core — something Cruz should know, because his home state, Texas, one of the few states to never sign on for Common Core, got a waiver anyway. Similarly, when Oklahoma and Indiana got rid of their Common Core standards, they both eventually kept their waivers after some back-and-forth.

No Child Left Behind, unlike Race to the Top, appears here to stay. But a desire to hold on to No Child Left Behind waivers isn't holding states back from abandoning Common Core now.

Why Cruz can't run a reverse Race to the Top

Ted Cruz

(Tom Williams/CQ-Roll Call Group)

If Cruz really wanted to get rid of Common Core, he could run the Obama administration's play in reverse: create his own version of Race to the Top, with financial incentives for states to toss out the Common Core standards and develop their own based on what local authorities think students should learn.

But that's just another form of federal interference — and Cruz wants the federal government out of the education standards business entirely. The US Education Department is already prohibited from interfering with curriculum, and Cruz's proposed Local Control of Education Act would extend that prohibition to standards, as well. (Standards are what students are supposed to know and be able to do; curriculum is the tool teachers use to help them achieve the standards.) Under Cruz's bill, future administrations couldn't require, encourage, or even hint at their desire that states share the same academic goals for their students.

So Cruz, if elected, could easily direct his Education Department to distribute grants and waivers without regard to a state's academic standards. That's probably what he means by "repeal." But it's not clear that would be enough to start a race away from Common Core.

Why Common Core is here to stay

The truth is Common Core is probably here to stay, and not because of any ongoing federal government policy. Rather, its greatest protector is inertia.

Students in most states this year are taking standardized tests linked to the standards. Districts have ordered textbooks and trained teachers on Common Core. Changing course now is expensive and logistically difficult. Even Mississippi's state legislature decided not to repeal the standards, saying the state had spent so much time and money implementing Common Core that it didn't make sense to walk away now.

Common Core appears likely to hold on for the most prosaic of reasons: even though many Republican legislators are deeply opposed to it, changing standards for the second time in six years is an expensive, difficult hassle. That might not be a sophisticated ideological reason to stick with the standards instead of changing course, but it's a powerful one.

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