By Margaret Sessa-Hawkins
A handful of large foundations, including the Gates foundation, Carnegie foundation, Helmsley foundation and Hewlett foundation have collectively spent almost $300 million on the advocacy, development and implementation of the Common Core State Standards, analysis of the foundations’ grant reports reveals.
The breakdown of the grants shows that the Gates foundation has given out over $200 million, the Carnegie foundation $47.8 million, Helmsley $20 million, and Hewlett just over $15 million.
Other foundations, such as the Broad foundation, report giving extensively to organizations associated with the planning, development and implementation of the Common Core, but do not cite specific amounts contributed.
A spreadsheet of many of those grants as compiled by MarylandReporter.com can be seen here.
Objections to private funding
This method of funding an already heavily contested education policy has attracted its own share of controversy. Sandra Stotsky, professor emerita at the University of Arkansas and a member of the Common Core State Standards Initiative Validation Committee, neatly summed up one of the main objections to the financial underwriting.
“They’re trying to shape public education,” Stotsky said. “They gave money away to shape something, and it was never ratified by state legislatures, local school boards or parents.”
The grants, which stretch back to 2008, include over $71 million spent on advocacy for the standards, almost $42 million on the development of materials aligned with the Common Core, and $106 million on implementation of the standards, including $27.8 million which went directly to state or regional boards of education to support their implementation efforts.
The three groups which served as the main architects for the standards, Achieve, the National Governors Association for Best Practices, and the Council of Chief State School Officers, collectively received at least $31.7 million in funding from private foundations to create Common Core.
Getting reform done
What this means, however, is complicated by the fact that the federal government is prohibited by at least two different sets of laws from creating or funding a national curriculum. In theory this leaves both the funding and implementation of individual curricula up to the states.
However, this makes funding any type of national education change or standards, which many feel is necessary to keep the United States internationally competitive in education, virtually impossible.
“How does anything get done? With a lot of money,” W. Stephen Wilson, a mathematics professor at John’s Hopkins University and member of a feedback group for the mathematics standards for Common Core said. “So who was going to fund it if not Gates? And now everything that is being done to implement Common Core is local. So I don’t see that anyone has lost local control.”
Institutions which received grants included education think-tanks such as the Hunt Institute ($8 million), the Fordham Institute ($1.4 million); policy organizations such as the National Association of State Boards of Education ($2.6 million) Council of Great City Schools ($6.1 million) and the National Indian Education Association ($1.1 million).
The charitable wings of two prominent national teachers unions, the American Federation of Teachers Educational Foundation and the National Education Association Foundation for the Improvement of Education received $5.4 million and $4.4 million respectively.
Some of the more notable grants include packages for developing math, English and science standards, grants to universities to align with Common Core, grants to various policy groups to promote Common Core among their members, and grants for organizations to defend against criticism of the Common Core when it arises.
Who is driving the debate
For many, seeing the amount of private funding that went in to Common Core fuels the idea that the standards were a top-down measure, one which left out the main stakeholders – local educators, administrators and parents.
“I don’t think these are evil people,” Cole Reilly, assistant professor of Elementary Education at Towson University said. “I think they mean well. But they honestly don’t know education. They know what they think is right, and they put their money in that direction. But that’s not who I want making decisions about education. They have every right to move their money where they want, but that’s not what should steer the conversation on education.”
However, the fact that Common Core was funded by private foundations does not automatically mean that it was not inherently a state-led initiative. Two of the major organizations involved in the design of the Common Core State Standards, the National Governors Association Center for Best Practices and the Council of Chief State School Officers, are made up of representatives from state governments as well as school officials.
Professor Wilson said that he saw the input states had first-hand in his work on the review panels.
“It really was state-led,” Wilson said. “Whatever the writers wrote, some of the first people who had access to critiquing them were state representatives. So wherever they could have written clearer standards states pushed back and told them to change them.”
Stotsky presents a different view of her time on the panel.
“We all know that it wasn’t state led,” Stotsky said. “I don’t know why anyone is even lying about it these days. Everyone knows that it was developed by NGA Best Practices and CCSSO and Achieve. They’re not representing the states. These are trade organizations, professional organizations with members. When I was on the validation committee we didn’t speak to any governors or state representatives. We were speaking to professional staffers.”
Grasmick explains Maryland’s choice
Nancy Grasmick, who was state superintendent of schools at the time Maryland adopted the Common Core State Standards asserts that regardless of who developed the standards, the state made a very conscious decision in adopting them.
Some have argued that states were pressured into adopting Common Core by money from federal Race to the Top grants, or applications for No Child Left Behind waivers – both of which require the adoption of Common Core. But Grasmick said that the Maryland State Board of Education adopted the standards because it seemed like the best decision.
“There was a weakness in the education system because we were attempting too much and it was all becoming watered down,” Grasmick said. “The state board was impressed with explanations that this would create deeper, thoughtful thinking, and teach students to defend positions, to resource documents. The federal issues were secondary. We adopted Common Core before we submitted any Race to the Top applications. It was really what we saw as the value of the standards.”
Untested standards are a major complaint
For many, however, even those perceived values are questionable.
“Common Core is an untested experiment on our children that is being implemented without the proper data to support it,” said Bess Altwerger, professor emeritus at Towson University and a founding member of Save Our Schools. “It was not initiated by educators, it was initiated by organizations that are represented by and funded by corporate entities. The result is that we are implementing an untested program, a set of standards that we have no data to prove work, and yet we are accepting this as a given, and our children are the guinea pigs.”
This past year the debate over Common Core spilled over into the legislative session. Three bills, one delaying use of student testing performance in teacher evaluations, one creating a common core work group and one requiring legislative oversight if the state education department files waivers to the federal Elementary and Secondary Education Act all passed. Del. Pat McDonough, R-Baltimore & Harford, who introduced bills to repeal Common Core completely, said he thinks this is just the start of the contention over Common Core.
“I think we’re at the very beginning of what is going to be a long struggle in Maryland and in America on Common Core and what it’s all about,” McDonough said. “You’re dealing with children and their future, and there is nothing more important to the citizens of the United States than their children and how they are educated.”