Anti-Common Core question tossed off ballot

SJC delivers big victory to supporters of new education standards

DERAILING EFFORTS TO repeal use of the Common Core education standards in Massachusetts schools, the Supreme Judicial Court ruled that a question that would have jettisoned the curriculum frameworks cannot appear in the November ballot.

The decision released on Friday morning spells the end of efforts for now to have the state repeal the standards, which were adopted in 2010. The standards were developed by a consortium that included the National Governors Association and the Council of Chief State School Officers and are at the center of a national effort to have states adopt a uniform set of benchmarks for English and math designed to have all students “college- and career-ready” by the time they finish high school.

The court, in a unanimous decision, ruled that the question could not go before voters this fall because it does not meet the requirement that all elements of a ballot question be “related or mutually dependent.”

The ballot question would have repealed the state education board’s adoption of Common Core standards and also required that the state release each school year all of the test items used on the previous year’s standardized student assessment.

It’s not enough, the court said, that elements of a ballot question have a “conceptual or abstract bond” — in this case by both relating to education policy. The goal of determining the curriculum standards used in Massachusetts schools and the goal of full transparency in requiring public release of the full contents of each year’s test “are clearly not ‘mutually dependent,’” the court ruled in a decision authored by Justice Margot Botsford.

The court wrote that a ballot question must “present a ‘unified statement of public policy’ that the voters can accept or reject as a whole,” a standard that the justices said the proposed question failed to meet.

Supporters of the Common Core standards were elated at the ruling.

“This is a huge win for education,” said Linda Noonan, executive director of the Massachusetts Business Alliance for Education, which has strongly backed Common Core. “This was from the start an unnecessary and potentially very costly drain of resources. Educators have spent almost six years working on and implementing the standards. The financial costs of repealing them would have been hundreds of millions of dollars that would have hit every city and town.”

While the SJC decision ruled against the question strictly on legal grounds, Noonan said, “we think it was proposing bad policy as well.”

“The current standards focus on the skills and knowledge students need for success after high school. Superintendents, principals, teachers and parents support these standards and tell us they are working for students,” Bill Walczak, the chairman of the Mass. Business Alliance board and a plaintiff in the suit that challenged the legality of the ballot question, said in a statement.

The leader of the anti-Common Core effort said the ruling stifles the public from weighing in an important policy issue. “We are really disappointed with the decision,” said Donna Colorio of End Common Core Massachusetts. “Parents, teachers, concerned citizens — we collected over 130,000 signatures and we just feel our voices are being silenced.”

The standards have been the flashpoint for heated debate. Some opponents have said Common Core represents an improper federal intrusion into state and local decision-making, while others have focused on the content of the standards themselves, arguing that they bring flawed approaches to English and math instruction.

Donald Trump has even seized on the issue in the presidential race. It’s been the only education issue he has raised consistently, declaring that a Trump administration would get rid of Common Core.

Common Core is not actually a federal initiative, but the Obama administration has strongly supported the effort and provided a strong incentive for states to adopt the standards through its $4.3 billion Race to the Top grant program.

Meet the Author

Michael Jonas

Executive Editor, CommonWealth

About Michael Jonas

Michael Jonas has worked in journalism in Massachusetts since the early 1980s. Before joining the CommonWealth staff in early 2001, he was a contributing writer for the magazine for two years. His cover story in CommonWealth's Fall 1999 issue on Boston youth outreach workers was selected for a PASS (Prevention for a Safer Society) Award from the National Council on Crime and Delinquency.

Michael got his start in journalism at the Dorchester Community News, a community newspaper serving Boston's largest neighborhood, where he covered a range of urban issues. Since the late 1980s, he has been a regular contributor to the Boston Globe. For 15 years he wrote a weekly column on local politics for the Boston Sunday Globe's City Weekly section.

Michael has also worked in broadcast journalism. In 1989, he was a co-producer for "The AIDS Quarterly," a national PBS series produced by WGBH-TV in Boston, and in the early 1990s, he worked as a producer for "Our Times," a weekly magazine program on WHDH-TV (Ch. 7) in Boston.

Michael lives in Dorchester with his wife and their two daughters.

About Michael Jonas

Michael Jonas has worked in journalism in Massachusetts since the early 1980s. Before joining the CommonWealth staff in early 2001, he was a contributing writer for the magazine for two years. His cover story in CommonWealth's Fall 1999 issue on Boston youth outreach workers was selected for a PASS (Prevention for a Safer Society) Award from the National Council on Crime and Delinquency.

Michael got his start in journalism at the Dorchester Community News, a community newspaper serving Boston's largest neighborhood, where he covered a range of urban issues. Since the late 1980s, he has been a regular contributor to the Boston Globe. For 15 years he wrote a weekly column on local politics for the Boston Sunday Globe's City Weekly section.

Michael has also worked in broadcast journalism. In 1989, he was a co-producer for "The AIDS Quarterly," a national PBS series produced by WGBH-TV in Boston, and in the early 1990s, he worked as a producer for "Our Times," a weekly magazine program on WHDH-TV (Ch. 7) in Boston.

Michael lives in Dorchester with his wife and their two daughters.

The ruling likely comes as a relief to Gov. Charlie Baker. During his unsuccessful 2010 run for governor, Baker testified against adopting Common Core before the state board of education. But he waved off any involvement in this year’s would-be ballot showdown, looking to avoid inserting himself into a contentious issue that stirs passion on both sides.

Colorio said Common Core foes would not give up, but she seemed unsure how their battle would move forward. “I’m not sure really what our next step is going to be,” she said. “We’ll continue to fight. I don’t know right now what shape or form it will take.”