Common Core protests show no signs of slowing
Parents, teachers want local control
A fierce battle in New York is the latest sign that populist resistance to the Obama administration-backed Common Core education reforms shows no signs of slowing — and that the opposition isn’t limited to red states.
Since 2010, 45 states have adopted the Common Core benchmarks for proficiency in English and math for schoolchildren at the end of each grade.
Critics say several states are experiencing buyers’ remorse after complaints from parents and scholars that the reforms are untested and poorly designed and put additional burdens on teachers and students. They also say Common Core represents a federal government intrusion into an area traditionally operated at the state and local levels.
Common Core, backed by $4.35 billion offered to states through President Obama’s 2009 stimulus, appeared to be overcoming opposition when it was implemented.
Now, however, backlash has been gaining force. Blogger Michele Zipp
High-occupancy toll lanes on the Beltway in Northern Virginia are underperforming a year after opening, a hurdle similar to others across the country during the infancy of road projects.
Analysts say the lower-than-expected traffic on the 14-mile-long corridor could be a result of changing transit patterns, an indication that drivers lack familiarity with the lanes or that predictions in early planning stages were overly optimistic.
The 495 Express Lanes were built through a private-public partnership and are operated by Australian company Transurban, where officials say they plan to create better signage and expand outreach in efforts to increase usage.
“There’s certainly a ramp-up period and there’s
education to be done, and that’s what we’re focusing on in the next year,” Transurban spokesman Michael McGurk said.
In an October financial report, Transurban disclosed that “traffic on the 495 Express Lanes in Northern Virginia remains below the project case expectations” with the number of trips averaging 37,574 per weekday. Planners initially estimated that weekday usage would average 66,000 trips within the first year.
“We saw the same thing with the [Intercounty Connector in Maryland] and other express lanes across the country,” said AAA Mid-Atlantic spokesman John B. Townsend II. “There is going to be longer ramp-up period when you almost have to dare people to use such a facility.”
Baruch Feigenbaum, a transportation policy analyst at Reason Foundation, said it typically takes a year to 18 months for high-occupancy toll lanes to reach their stride.
“I’m fairly confident that we will be where we need to be in six months,” Mr. Feigenbaum said.
The average number of daily trips has increased steadily since the 495 Express Lanes lanes opened in November 2012, with record daily toll revenue of $108,493 and 47,303 trips recorded on Sept. 12.
“We’re continuing to review the revenue profile against our expectations,” Mr. McGurk said.
Across the country
HOT lanes across the country have experienced rollout problems, but transportation scholars say usage has increased as drivers become accustomed to them.
The projects provide dedicated lanes restricted to vehicles with a certain number of passengers — three in Virginia’s case — or vehicles that pay a toll. Their purpose is to encourage carpooling or offer an alternative to people who are willing to pay to travel in lanes with less traffic.
In Atlanta, where there was initially fierce opposition to HOT lanes on Interstate 85, tolls had to be adjusted soon after their 2011 opening because so few drivers were using the lanes.
“They got the pricing wrong, there was almost nobody in the lanes and it was a big political mess,” said Mr. Feigenbaum, adding that the toll lanes hit their usage target about a year later.
In Los Angeles, where high-occupancy vehicle lanes were converted to HOT lanes, congestion initially worsened, said Robert Poole, director of transportation policy at Reason Foundation.
Carpoolers were required to have transponders to ride in the HOT lanes. Many did not purchase the devices initially and were forced back onto the regular highway, increasing traffic.
The successes of other projects have brought their own issues. Miami’s HOT lanes on Interstate 95, opened in 2008, have become so popular that lawmakers are debating whether to raise tolls to reduce usage and improve traffic flow.
Virginia Gov. Bob McDonnell, a Republican, touted the public-private partnership as a successful piece of his comprehensive transportation plan. He proposed public-private partnerships and toll roads as part of his solution to the state’s traffic problems, but the initiative was in motion when Mr. McDonnell was elected in 2009.
Analysts say Virginia’s express lanes are complex, with multiple entry and exit points, and it may take more time for drivers to decide whether they are worth the cost.
“The ones in Miami, you can get on and you can get off and that’s it. It’s a pipe,” Mr. Poole said. “The express lanes on the Beltway are the most complex of anywhere thus far. I’m not surprised that it takes longer to figure it out.”
Transurban has taken steps to educate drivers about the 495 Express Lanes. In April, it offered a toll-free weekend so drivers could try the lanes. In June, the speed limit was raised from 55 mph to 65 mph to create greater appeal.
But changing drivers’ commuting habits will take “constant messaging,” Mr. Townsend said.
Mr. McGurk said Transurban plans to use feedback from a recent survey to look at ways to improve signage explaining where to enter and exit the express lanes. The company also will launch a marketing campaign to let drivers know they can purchase the E-ZPass, the transponder used to pay the toll fees, online and at grocery stores.
Mr. McGurk said Transurban also is reaching out to large businesses in the Tysons Corner area to provide information to employees about the tolls’ dynamic pricing, which charges more when traffic is congested, and access points.
“It takes drivers a long time to really get used to this and make it a piece of their commute,” Mr. McGurk said.
Expecting too much
Driving has been on the decline in the U.S. since 2004, prompting concern from opponents that development of the 495 Express Lanes was not the best transit investment.
The lanes cost nearly $2 billion to build, though Virginia contributed only $409 million to the public-private partnership. However an additional 29-mile stretch of HOT lanes is under construction along I-95. If the nearly $1 billion project turns a profit, the state stands to collect a percentage. But given the lackluster performance of the 495 Express Lanes, some think the state should have waited before embarking on another project.
Pointing to the Intercounty Connector in Maryland and the express lanes, Stewart Schwartz, executive director of the Coalition for Smarter Growth, said planners estimated higher usage and better returns on both projects.
“Both lanes are well below their original forecasts for number of trips and revenue, which indicates these are both still experiments,” Mr. Schwartz said. “That’s why we urged them to wait on the I-95 HOT lanes. We really need to test this out before we go further.”
Transit patterns also are shifting, Mr. Schwartz said, with people moving in droves into the District in the midst of its urban renewal and trading long road commutes for other modes of transportation.
He questions whether investment in express buses on dedicated lanes or better links with transit-oriented development could have been more effective at reducing regional congestion.
Noting that usage estimates of the 495 Express Lanes were made before the recession — during which U.S. car usage declined markedly — Mr. Poole thinks planners may have gotten into trouble in the short term.
“There is a question of how they are going to cover their debt service in the next several years,” he said.
But as long as the regional economy remains robust, he said, drivers likely will return to the roads and help make the HOT lanes successful. of The Stir last week said Common Core “is kind of turning into the Obamacare of education.”
Common Core opponents have organized a social media campaign to make Monday a “National Don’t Send Your Child to School Day” and have planned protests at local education administration buildings. A Facebook page for protesters had more than 5,500 supporters by Sunday.
Opposition to Common Core has been roiling in recent weeks since New York state Education Commissioner John King conducted a series of meetings that highlighted deep concerns about the reforms.
“We are abusing the children in the state of New York,” Beth Dimino, president of the Port Jefferson Station Parent Teacher Association, said at a forum last week at Ward Melville High School, according to an account on Patch.com.
Lana Ajemian, the head of New York’s Parent Teacher Association, said standards have moved far too quickly for students to keep up. “It’s like the train’s pulling out of the station without everybody on board,” Ms. Ajemian told NBC New York during the public forum on Long Island.
Conservative education scholars have led opposition to Common Core reforms, but the resistance appears to have taken the Obama administration and the education establishment by surprise. The bipartisan National Governors Association and the Council of Chief State School Officers have led state-by-state adoption of the standards.
“Development of these standards was not driven by the federal government, but by the states,” wrote Dennis Van Roekel, president of the National Education Association. “Governors on both sides of the aisle, the business community, and most importantly educators, came together to ensure one thing: that students learn what they need to live a successful life in a 21st century global economy.”
Although adoption of Common Core was voluntary, states that rejected the standards were considered effectively ineligible for federal stimulus funds tied to President Obama’s Race to the Top initiative.
The four states that have rejected Common Core completely are Alaska, Nebraska, Texas and Virginia. Minnesota has accepted the English standards but not the math standards.
But much of the energy in recent months has come from opponents, who include an unusually broad mix of scholars, teachers, parents and state legislators.
In one of the first signs of resistance, the Republican National Committee unexpectedly adopted a resolution opposing Common Core. At its spring meeting, the RNC called Common Core an “inappropriate overreach to standardize and control the education of our children so they will conform to a preconceived ‘normal.’”
Under pressure from parents, Florida Gov. Rick Scott, a Republican, sent a letter last month informing Education Secretary Arne Duncan that his state was leaving Common Core, citing a “federal intrusion in education policy.”
Indiana Gov. Mike Pence, also a Republican, signed the Common Core Pause Bill this year to allow deliberation among state agencies until a consensus could be reached on governmental education.
In a move that sparked sharp debate within the American church, a group of 132 respected Catholic scholars and educators released an open letter last week calling on U.S. bishops to block the Common Core standards from being imposed on the Catholic Church’s extensive network of parochial schools.
“We believe that, notwithstanding the good intentions of those who made these decisions, Common Core was approved too hastily and with inadequate consideration of how it would change the character and curriculum of our nation’s Catholic schools …,” the letter said. “In fact, we are convinced that Common Core is so deeply flawed that it should not be adopted by Catholic schools which have yet to approve it, and that those schools which have already endorsed it should seek an orderly withdrawal now.”
Other states, including Alabama, have mixed feelings about Common Core.
“I am adamantly opposed to Common Core, and I hope the Legislature will do something about it,” state Sen. Scott Beason, Gardendale Republican, said last week. “There are some people who would like to avoid it one way or another. But I believe it’s one of the biggest issues facing the Republican Party, and this is a red state.”