Common Core Standards could costs states

State Budget Solutions | by Shannan Younger | November 15, 2012

Change is coming to American education in the form of the Common Core Standards (CCS). The CCS are the result of a state-led effort coordinated by the National Governors Association Center for Best Practices and the Council of Chief State School Officers intended to provide a clear and consistent framework to prepare children for college and the workforce and they developed the standards in collaboration with teachers, school administrators, and experts.

Only 5 states are not taking steps toward implementing the CCS, meaning 45 states are transitioning to a list of specific and universal educational benchmarks in English language arts and mathematics that will replace the individual education goals and requirements of each state that adopts them.

Proponents of the CCS claim that they will raise and standardize the quality of American education. Detractors see them as a costly and ineffective step toward the total nationalization of educational methodology and assessment. With American education and state budgets both in a state of crisis, any change should be submitted to close inspection, especially one as radical as CCS implementation - a complete overhaul of the way that students will be taught, assessed, and funded.

Creation of the CCS

Achieve, Inc, an organization whose stated goal is to bring state leaders together to address common education challenges and to ensure "college and career readiness" for all American high school students, became the initial proponents of the Common Core Standards after it released two studies in 2004 and 2006 on the declining value of the American high school diploma due to the remedial educational status of the majority of high school graduates. Then, in 2008, Achieve, Inc. released Out of Many, One: Toward Rigorous Common Core Standards from the Ground Up, and in June 2010 the Common Core Standards were formally announced as part of the American Diploma Project. The CCS were quickly tied to the Obama administration's 2009 Race to the Top benchmarks and became requirements for federal education grant eligibility, motivating many states swiftly moved toward implementation.

Although 48 states participated in the development of the CCS, Texas and Alaska being the two that did not participate. Nebraska has not yet adopted the standards, Virginia is opting out, and Minnesota has adopted the English standards only. The Brookings Institute reported, "to make sure they got the points for ‘adopting' common standards, many states committed in their applications to replacing their current standards with the common standards, even though at the time the applications were being written, late last fall, the common standards were sight unseen." Implementation will require that a significant portion of a state's curriculum, at least 85%, align with the CCS.

Budget Impact of CCS

Education costs already take up a significant percentage of state budgets, accounting for 26% of state spending in FY 2011. Governors and legislatures are desperately attempting to reign in out-of-control state spending through controversial methods such shortening the school year, consolidating school districts, and slashing school funding across the board. With CCS changes are scheduled to be in place by 2014 for assessment purposes, there is little time for states to back out of commitments they cannot afford, and there is no question that many states are already on the brink of fiscal disaster. In light of the current situation, the cost of CCS implementation deserves a close scrutiny. Two studies by the Pioneer and Fordham Institutes take a look at the potential costs of CCS adoption.

The Pioneer Institute's February 2012 study, National Cost of Aligning States and Localities to the Common Core Standards, lists three significant costs of CCS adoption. First, they estimate that states will pay $1.2 billion for the new yearly assessments that accompany the standards, including the costs of computers and Internet bandwidth required for the computer-scored tests. The professional development and training necessary to prepare teachers to meet the CCS is priced at $5.3 billion, as fewer than half of the states surveyed by Pioneer in 2012 were currently providing the needed training (the Gates Foundation's 2012 Primary Sources survey found that 27% of the 10,000 teachers polled felt unprepared to teach the new standards). Finally, the Pioneer Institute estimates that states will spend $2.5 billion on new textbooks and instructional materials to bring their schools in line with the CCS - while many schools are using still-relevant textbooks (which have a lifespan of 2 to 6 years) from previous school years, CCS adoption will require a total overhaul and replacement of educational materials by Fall 2014 (p 17).

In addition to the three main costs, Pioneer's study predicts a cost of $6.9 billion in necessary technology infrastructure and support required for successful CSS implementation, while noting that no state has released any report on the cost estimates or feasibility of these technological requirements. In summary, a 7-year, "mid-range" level of commitment (defined as spending on basic expenditures with no other reforms or innovation) to CCS adoption, according to the Pioneer Institute, will cost the states $15.8 billion. This number does not include the costs of the 15% of academic content that each state will be able to add to the CCS requirements if it chooses.

The Fordham Institute's May 2012 study, Putting a Price Tag on the Common Core, presents three "options" for CCS implementation: a $12.1 billion "business as usual" model (implementation proceeding along traditional lines), a $3.0 billion "bare bones" projection (in which states rely on open-source material, webinar training, and cut all unnecessary spending), and a $5.1 billion "balanced implementation" plan that walks the line between the other two models. The Fordham study takes a more optimistic view of states' ability to afford the CCS implementation, noting that the states already spend about $3.9 billion in their collective education budgets that will be funneled to the CCS adoption and suggesting that states view the CCS changes as "embedded in a larger vision of transformation" (p 11). While the Pioneer Institute's estimate includes the price of a 6-year transitional period, the Fordham Institute's study only looks at the costs of immediate implementation, as well as basing their numbers on a suggested implementation method that states may or may not choose to adopt. The Fordham study also does not include an estimate of the technological overhaul predicted by the Pioneer Institute. With those differences in mind, the $10 billion discrepancy between the two institutes' forecastings is understandable. It is interesting to note that the cost estimate of California's Department of Education aligns more closely with the more expensive "business as usual" model than either of the lower projections.

There are many other facets of the CCS debate: uncertainty as to the merits of the standards themselves, concerns about the shift from a literature-based method of English education to the more technical, instruction-manual focus of the English CCS, questions about the efficiency of such an overtly top-down federal education overhaul, debate over the role of national standards in charter and private school curriculum, fears that a national system could crush education innovation, and worries that the rushed timing of adoption could backfire and leave teachers and students stranded in an untested system.

Whatever answers emerge from any further debate over the efficacy of the CCS, one thing is clear: CCS adoption is expensive and will add more strain to state budgets already at the breaking point. It is less clear how states will afford to pay for this massive education overhaul.