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Looking to take over former presidential candidate Marco Rubio’s soon-to-be-vacant Senate seat, U.S. Rep. David Jolly wants to educate voters about his conservative bona fides in Congress — including his opposition to Common Core.
The Indian Shores Republican has been in the House of Representatives for two years after winning a 2014 special election to replace his mentor, the late Rep. C.W. Bill Young. In that short span, he said, he has helped change federal education policy.
"Last year, I worked with my colleagues to end funding for federal Race to the Top grants, which require participating states to adopt the Common Core standards as a condition for receiving federal funding," he said on his campaign website.
The Common Core State Standards are a set of shared guidelines in English and math designed to prepare students for college and to unify educational goals nationwide. They’ve become an unpopular subject with many conservatives.
We decided to test Jolly’s assertion that states had to adopt the Common Core in order to win federal grants.
Race to the Top
Our lesson begins with a primer on Common Core.
In 2007, the Council of Chief State School Officers considered creating state-based standards that could be shared nationwide. The idea was that a high school diploma from Tennessee would then have the same value as one from Idaho or New Mexico.
Two years later, the council and the National Governors Association agreed to develop what was called Common Core with input from teachers, parents and education experts.
President Barack Obama’s signature education program, Race to the Top, invited states to compete for grant money from the 2009 federal economic stimulus. States had to show they were committed to improving educational standards and performance and implement reforms to win the cash.
The final Common Core guidelines came out in 2010, and states could decide to use them or ignore them. Forty-five states decided to accept the standards. Minnesota adopted the English standards, but not the math guidelines. Indiana, Oklahoma and South Carolina agreed to use Common Core at first, but later backed off the plan.
Jolly’s assertion is that the application process demanded states adopt Common Core to get a grant. That isn’t the case. Committing to Common Core was not a stipulation of winning a grant, but it did factor into the application process.
The Education Department gave states that had adopted a set of standards extra points (40 of a possible 500) when competing for grants. The shorthand was, if you had adopted Common Core, you had a better chance at hitting the federal grant lottery.
Jolly’s campaign pointed out the guidelines for the grant process that said applicants had to show a "commitment to adopting a common set of high-quality standards." They reasoned that almost all of the 19 eventual grant winners (including Florida, which won $700 million in August 2010) had adopted Common Core before winning grants.
But experts told us there was no demand that states adopt Common Core before Washington would hand over funding. And even then, there was no requirement for actually implementing them.
Delaware, for example, won its grant in March 2010, but didn’t adopt Common Core until August of that year. Tennessee also won in March 2010, but adopted them in July of that year.
Daniel Thatcher, a senior policy specialist at the National Conference of State Legislatures, said Washington has subsequently been accused of coercing states into adopting Common Core. In 2015, a federal judge rejected former Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal’s coercion claims in a lawsuit he brought against the Education Department, which his successor has since ended.
Common Core did have supporters in Washington, although they often were careful about not using the term Common Core. But many state legislators and teachers unions and education reformers approved of Common Core at the time, too. (For the record, even Jindal once was a Common Core advocate before changing his mind and suing the federal government.)
"For any single state, it's difficult to know whether Race to the Top merely rewarded an applicant for doing something it was already inclined to do, or whether the competition changed behavior in any material way," University of Chicago political science professor William Howell said in an email.
He noted the timing of the grants during the recession may have potentially spurred some states into action to shore up finances, leading them to adopt Common Core to get a leg up.
"It's hard not to conclude that features of the competition were at least partially responsible," Howell said.
His campaign said Jolly helped keep funding out of the following year’s bill after he joined the House Appropriations Committee in January 2015. Obama did not ask for Race to the Top funding in his FY 2016 budget proposal. The remaining funds for the grant program expired in September 2015.
In December 2015, Jolly also voted in favor of the Every Student Succeeds Act. That bill, signed by Obama, specifically said the Secretary of Education "shall not attempt to influence, incentivize, or coerce State adoption of the Common Core State Standards."
Jolly said Race to the Top grants "require participating states to adopt the Common Core standards as a condition for receiving federal funding."
Adopting education guidelines — Common Core or otherwise — was an element of a state’s overall application score and would add to point totals. Common Core critics have since accused Washington of coercing states.
But there was no concrete requirement to adopt standards in exchange for grant money. Experts told us the promise of federal money during the recession may have spurred Common Core adoption in some places, but there’s no way to know that for sure.
We rate Jolly’s statement Mostly False.
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PolitiFact Arizona, "Is Common Core no more?," Feb. 29, 2016
PolitiFact, "Common Core is 'education through Washington, D.C.,' Trump says," March 10, 2016
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Interview with William Howell, University of Chicago political science professor, April 6, 2016
Interview with Daniel Thatcher, National Conference of State Legislatures senior policy specialist, April 5-6, 2016
Interview with Dorie Nolt, U.S. Department of Education spokeswoman, April 5 & 7, 2016
Interview with Max Goodman, Jolly campaign spokesman, April 7, 2016
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