Two weeks ago, the Legislative Fiscal Bureau finally released its assessment (PDF) of the costs of Common Core, the new set of educational standards going into effect in school districts around the state this year. Here's the good news: For the state of Wisconsin, Common Core will be virtually free!
"There is no direct fiscal effect on the state to update district curriculum and teacher practice to align with the common core standards," the Fiscal Bureau reports.
Here's the bad news: Instead of the state shelling out for Common Core, individual school districts will have to pick up the tab.
And here's more bad news: While the costs could range from tens of millions to hundreds of millions of dollars, the Fiscal Bureau reports, "calculating such figures specifically for Wisconsin, given the decentralized system of school governance in place and the lack of data...is not possible."
School districts, which have already absorbed the biggest budget cuts in state history over the last two years, are now going to be on the hook for unspecified millions to implement the new Common Core standards. The Fiscal Bureau quotes a guesstimate of aggregate costs by the right-wing Fordham Institute in the range of $62.3 million to $256.1 million. But that doesn't count what is likely to be the biggest-ticket item of all: "infrastructure" for Common Core's required computerized assessments.
This news, as you might imagine, has not been particularly well received by local school boards, public school advocates or conservatives. Tea partiers in Wisconsin have renamed Common Core "ObamaCore." The idea of an unfunded federal mandate that takes decisions about school curriculum out of the hands of parents and local school boards is exactly the sort of thing that keeps ideological conservatives up at night.
On the other side of the aisle, public school advocates, teachers and progressive education policy folks are not thrilled about the idea of more computerized multiple-choice tests, particularly when districts with scarce resources will have to spend millions on expensive testing software sold by a handful of corporations that rake in big bucks selling their wares.
And, of course, parents and teachers worry about the stress and emphasis on failure associated with the new, high-stakes, extra-hard tests. "Poor results hammer students' confidence and disengage them from learning," the group Fair Test asserts in its "Common Core Assessment Myths and Realities Fact Sheet":
If a child struggles to clear the high bar at five feet, she will not become a 'world class' jumper because someone raised the bar to six feet and yelled 'jump higher,' or if her 'poor' performance is used to punish her coach.
But make no mistake: The infrastructure costs of Common Core, which the Fiscal Bureau report glosses over, will be the biggest issue, particularly for rural and poor urban school districts. Should individual school districts cut football or soccer or art so they can purchase all the software and hardware required to stream the Common Core's fancy computerized tests? Does this make sense?
How did we get this far into Common Core anyway, before we started talking about the bottom line?
Get your pens ready. I am now going to provoke a torrent of angry letters by comparing Common Core to an incredibly insensitive dirty joke.
The joke goes like this: Two men are flying in a plane over the ocean when the plane crashes and they are taken hostage by cannibals, who offer each of them the choice between death or "oogabooga." The first man chooses "oogabooga," which turns out to be a ritual practice so obscene and ghastly that the second man chooses death. Which brings us to the punchline: The second man's sentence is "death by oogabooga."
Read the Legislative Fiscal Bureau report, and you will see why this awful analogy is apt.
Wisconsin was one of 45 states to adopt the Common Core standards back in 2010, thanks to a combination of inducements, including eligibility for Obama's federal Race to the Top funding and a waiver from the onerous testing requirements of No Child Left Behind.
In other words, the state got out of No Child Left Behind and all the standards, testing requirements and costs associated with that unpopular program by agreeing to a different program that turns out to rely on expensive and onerous standardized tests. "Common Core will flood classrooms with even more tests," according to Fair Test. And, it continues, "As with NCLB, Common Core tests will be used improperly to make high-stakes decisions, including high school graduation, teacher evaluation and school accountability."
So what should Wisconsin do?
"Activists should call for an indefinite moratorium on Common Core tests to allow time for implementation of truly better assessments," says Fair Test.
Given the increasing opposition from citizens across the political spectrum, Wisconsin may want to take a moment to consider a better option than oogabooga or death.
Ruth Conniff is the editor of The Progressive.