Analysis: A closer look at the Common Core lawsuit

This week’s Common Core lawsuit sticks to some well-worn ground — arguing that the academic standards threaten state sovereignty.

Idaho Core Standards logoThe lawsuit seeks to shut down Idaho’s version of the math and English language arts standards, established in 2013. But the plaintiffs’ 36-page lawsuit makes scant mention of the standards themselves.

As I described in our story Tuesday, the fight hinges on the Smarter Balanced Assessment Consortium, or SBAC, the tests aligned to the Idaho Core Standards. The fight is over state sovereignty, of course, but also about money. The plaintiffs contend that the state is on the hook this year for $6 million for “an unconstitutional and wasteful expenditure of government resources.”

The SBAC became somewhat more of a household acronym this spring, when students throughout the state took the lengthy online exam. This is the first time students and their schools will be judged based on SBAC scores.

But Idaho’s relationship with SBAC far predates this spring’s seven-week testing window.

Idaho has long been a governing member of SBAC — a relationship that gave Idaho officials a seat at the table in crafting the assessments. Luci Willits, former superintendent Tom Luna’s chief of staff, had served on SBAC’s board of directors and now works for SBAC.

Idaho’s relationship with SBAC doesn’t come cheap, although the $6 million figure may be open to debate.

In 2014-15, the state sent nearly $1.6 million to the University of California’s Board of Regents, another SBAC partner. It’s unclear how much Idaho will send to the board of regents in 2015-16, said Jeff Church, a spokesman for state superintendent Sherri Ybarra. Meanwhile, Idaho is in the midst of a three-year, $12.1 million contract to grade SBAC exams.

In sum, Idaho’s SBAC ties were well-known before plaintiffs filed their lawsuit Monday — and aren’t in dispute. But are they legal?

The lawsuit contends that SBAC is an unconstitutional multistate compact, since Congress never authorized SBAC to deliver tests in 18 states. These tests, in turn, violate federal law that prohibits the U.S. Department of Education “from instituting a national curriculum.”

It’s an interesting legal juxtaposition. On the one hand, the plaintiffs argue that the U.S. Congress has a unique and necessary role in approving a multistate testing system. On the other hand, the plaintiffs advance a familiar conservative argument against Uncle Sam’s role in K-12 policy. “Education policy is an area of core state competence and concern that is not delegated to the federal government.”

Will the argument fly?

As Rebecca Boone of the Associated Press reported Tuesday, the SBAC model has come under scrutiny elsewhere. In Missouri, a circuit court judge voided the state’s SBAC membership. That case remains under appeal, Boone reports, while a similar challenge has been filed in North Dakota.

State officials were tight-lipped about the lawsuit Tuesday and Wednesday. But given the fact that the state’s political, business and education committees remain aligned behind Common Core, it’s hard to envision the state’s political leaders backing down.

For a state that has lost more than its share of high-profile legal battles — on the Idaho Education Network, same-sex marriage, the “ag-gag” law and the veto of a ban on instant horse racing machines — another big court date could be looming.

Disclosure: The Idaho Freedom Foundation — a group underwriting the Common Core lawsuit — received a one-time grant from the J.A. and Kathryn Albertson Family Foundation in 2013 for polling and research on education issues. The Albertson Foundation funds Idaho Education News.