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No, Arne Duncan, ‘White Suburban Moms’ Aren’t The Problem. (But you might be)

US Department of Education

Common Core, the initiative that claims to more accurately measure K-12 student knowledge in English and math, also encourages children to step up their “critical thinking.”

That didn’t stop Education Secretary Arne Duncan, one of Common Core’s salesmen, from telling a group schools superintendents last week that it was “fascinating” to see opposition to the initiative coming from “white suburban moms who, all of a sudden, their child isn’t as brilliant as they thought they were, and their school isn’t quite as good as they thought they were.” (Non-apology apology can be found here.)

Now, it’s possible that little Caleb and Riley may not be the prodigies their parents suspect, but antagonism towards Common Core is more likely propelled by a belief that centralizing education allows Washington to, over time, destroy local autonomy. Even if these fears are exaggerated, they are far from outlandish – and hardly “fascinating” to anyone who’s paying attention.

What is fascinating, though, is hearing Arne Duncan contend that certain suburbanite “white” parents have little interest in any genuine assessment of kids and their schools. Evidence seems to suggest the opposite, actually. White suburban moms (shorthand, of course, for moms who live in middle-class communities that feature all kinds of races) seem to have a propensity to spend a lot of time, energy and money creating better schools.

What’s more, whether the children of “white suburban moms” are as accomplished as we think or not, comparably speaking, the data finds that these kids attend reasonably good schools, they tend to graduate a lot and many of them go to college. And, because many of these parents can afford it, if the public school is failing them, they ship the kids to parochial or private schools. An option many of their poorer neighbors do not have the luxury of doing.

It is is true that once schools shift to Common Core, standardized test scores will generally fall. Duncan argues that these new, lower scores are a more precise reflection of the experience in these schools (it could also mean that schools haven’t yet learned how to teach to the test.) Either way, if these “white” kids are as average as Duncan thinks, what does that say about minority kids who are regularly scoring 20 points lower on standardized tests? It means we have a national tragedy on our hands.

A few years back, the Achievement Gap Initiative at Harvard found that 12 percent of black 4th grade boys were proficient in reading — compared to 38 percent of white boys. It found that only 12 percent of black 8th grade boys were proficient in math — compared with 44 percent of white boys. As the New York Times reported, African-American males dropped out at almost twice the rate of white males. Their SAT critical reasoning scores were 104 points lower than average. “There’s accumulating evidence that there are racial differences in what kids experience before the first day of kindergarten,” said Ronald Ferguson. “They have to do with a lot of sociological and historical forces. In order to address those, we have to be able to have conversations that people are unwilling to have.”

No, we can’t really have those conversations. When asked about the remarks on Monday, Jay Carney said that Duncan’s “broader point” was that “I think we need to be honest about whether we’re providing the skills … our children need to succeed.” That’s a fair question, and one that Duncan didn’t ask, and one that he has done little to answer over the past five years. But Duncan is wedded to political causes, not answers and not evidence.

“If they tell you that any of these things are happening –– challenge them to name names,” Duncan told newspaper editors in a lecture on how they should be covering Common Core not long ago. “Challenge them to produce evidence – because they won’t find it.” Sounds familiar.

One of the first actions of the Obama Administration was to back shutting down the D.C. voucher program, which provided $7,500 Opportunity Scholarship vouchers to disadvantaged kids. At the time, the Wall Street Journal editorial board reported that the Department of Education had buried a study that illustrated persuasive data–driven improvement among kids who won vouchers, compared to the kids who didn’t. Not only was the report disregarded by Duncan, the Department of Education issued a gag order for officials who might want to discuss it.

As luck would have it, the editorial board I sat on at the time was scheduled to interview Duncan the day after the story broke:

When I had the chance to ask Duncan—at a meeting of The Denver Post‘s editorial board Tuesday—whether he was alerted to this study before Congress eradicated the D.C. program, he offered an unequivocal “no.” He then called the Journal editorial “fundamentally dishonest” and maintained that no one had even tried to contact him—despite the newspaper’s contention that it did, repeatedly.

When I called The Wall Street Journal, I discovered a different—that is, meticulously sourced and exceedingly convincing—story, including documented e-mail conversations between the author and higher-ups at his office.

Later, I was told that Duncan had called and apologized to the Journal. More importantly: evidence provided, evidence ignored. And it’s not the only time.

In 1999, Florida enacted far-reaching reform in K–12 education that included school choice, charter schools and virtual education, among other improvements. Consequently, over the next decade and a half, Florida outperformed the national average by a wide margin in closing the achievement gap. Other states, including Colorado, have attempted to take on similar reform measures (though they’ve often been stopped in the courts). Louisiana, most recently, passed bipartisan legislation that created a voucher program for students trapped in failing schools. Only families that fell below 250 percent of the poverty line were eligible and 90 percent of these voucher recipients are black. Around 8,000 children signed up.

The administration didn’t review evidence, it sued. And when its suit looked flimsy, it changed course and made a rather remarkable argument, as Jillian Kay Melchior at National Review reported:

The real objection to the DOJ’s original suit is that parents would essentially have to take on the federal government before they could remove their children from a school certain to fail them. These parents would have to hire a lawyer, work their way through a lengthy and arduous legal process, and make the case that their child’s transfer didn’t interfere with abstract notions of what diversity should look like. But many of the children stuck in Louisiana’s failing schools belong to impoverished, single-parent households, making this legal hurdle even more insurpassable.

In its new motion, the DOJ ignores this, instead focusing on the data about racial composition of public schools. The department acknowledges that Louisiana has agreed to submit that information, claiming that satisfies it. But, of course, the DOJ stands by its vastly more controversial demand: That federal courts, not parents, should decide where children attend school.

With almost no hope of stopping Louisiana, the Obama Administration finally dropped it’s lawsuit against the voucher program this week.

The administration isn’t interested in “suburban white moms” getting in its way, and it sure doesn’t want minority moms having too many choices. Duncan’s recent comments weren’t “clumsy,” they were part of a pattern. A pattern that undermines innovation and allows the achievement gap to get worse.

Follow David Harsanyi on Twitter.