TIME Education

Ghost of Common Core Haunts Conservative Gathering

CPAC Conservatives Republicans Chris Christie
Mark Peterson—Redux for TIME New Jersey governor Chris Christie on stage at CPAC in National Harbor, Md. on Feb. 26, 2015.

For the politicians speaking at the Conservative Political Action Conference near Washington this week, it’s usually pretty easy to give the grassroots audience the red meat it craves. Abortion? Against it! Taxes? Lower them! Obama? Don’t like him!

But one hot-button issue was trickier than usual for some of the politicians, especially the governors who are likely to run for president in 2016: Common Core.

With one notable exception, the speakers at CPAC were against the state education standards, saying they hurt local control of education and took the power from parents and teachers.

On Thursday, Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal demanded the immediate repeal of Common Core. That same day, Ben Carson, the neurosurgeon-cum-presidential hopeful, slammed it for eliminating parental choice, while Florida Sen. Marco Rubio and Texas Sen. Ted Cruz questioned the conservative credentials of anyone who doesn’t actively attempt to dismantle the program. “If a candidate says they oppose Common Core, fantastic,” said Cruz. “[But] when have they stood up and fought against it?”

Meanwhile, New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie and Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker took turns condemning Common Core for being poorly implemented and impinging on state control.

That was all well and good–anti-Common Core lines tend to earn hoots and applause from the grassroots—but whenever the questioning on Common Core probed ever so slightly deeper, everyone seemed to cringe.

That’s because, just three years ago, the majority of Republican politicians—including Govs. Walker, Jindal, Christie and Jeb Bush—not only supported the implementation of Common Core, they outright championed it. In early 2011, 40 states, including nearly all Republican-led ones, voluntarily signed on to the shared standards. In the next two years, five more followed suit.

In 2011, Walker included Common Core in his first state budget, explicitly instructing the state education chief to come up with a Common Core-aligned state test for Wisconsin kids.

In 2012, Jindal told a crowd of business leaders that Common Core “will raise expectations for every child.”

In 2013, Christie told a crowd of educators that he was sticking with Common Core regardless of the “knee-jerk reaction that is happening in Washington” among Republicans who will simply disagree with anything President Obama supports. “We are doing Common Core in New Jersey and we’re going to continue,” he said boldly.

But as the politics around the issue have shifted, driven largely by a grassroots base of Tea Party conservatives, all of them have tip-toed backwards, either distancing themselves or outright condemning the standards.

All of them, that is, except Jeb Bush.

The former Florida governor has, in the past two years, earned the ire of the conservative base by not only refusing to condemn Common Core, but by continuing to support it. That’s awkward.

Some at CPAC responded to this rift by ignoring it entirely. In a panel about Common Core on Thursday—entitled “Common Core: Rotten To The Core?”—a group of vehemently anti-Common Core educators simply avoided saying Bush’s name. “Entire Common Core panel at CPAC happened without mentioning the words ‘Jeb’ and ‘Bush,'” tweeted Igor Bobic, a politics editor at the Huffington Post.

But others, including Laura Ingraham, who has made no secret of her dislike for the former Florida governor, came at Bush swinging. This morning, the conservative radio host told the crowd that there really wasn’t any difference between Bush and potential Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton, citing the two politicians support for Common Core as among their similarities. “So I’m designing the bumper sticker,” she said. “It could be, Clush 2016: What difference does it make?”

MONEY College

My Son Isn’t Going to College. Now What?

College savings seemed to go according to plan, but now the beneficiary has strayed from the script, and the parent is worried he'll get the funds.

Q. My son is turning 18 and I’ve saved more than $200,000 for him for college. He doesn’t want to go. Some of the money is in UTMAs, some in a 529 Plan and some in savings bonds. I don’t want him to live off the money and not get a job. Help!

A. Bet that threw you for a loop.

Each of the kinds of assets you saved for your son is treated a bit differently, so let’s take stock of what you have.

Custodial Accounts

The assets you saved in a custodial account — Uniform Transfer to Minor Act accounts, or UTMAs — will be his when he reaches the age of majority, said Bryan Smalley, a certified financial planner with RegentAtlantic Capital in Morristown.

In New Jersey, the age of majority is 21. That means that there are three more years before the assets officially become your son’s.

“A lot can happen in the next three years: your son could start a career and be self-sufficient — therefore not needing the money to support his lifestyle — he could start his own company and use the UTMA funds to help grow the business, or he could end up deciding to go the college,” Smalley said. “Who knows, a few years of earning minimum wage and seeing all of his friends move on with their lives may be all the motivation he needs to hit the books once again.”

The 529 Plan

The 529 account is different. As long as you’re the owner of the account, you retain control of the funds and there is no time limit on when you need to use them,” Smalley said.

If your son decides to go to college in a year or two, the funds will be there.

“If your son does not go to college, you can always use the funds for another of your children’s college education — if your son is not an only child — or hold onto the account and use it for a future grandchild’s college education,” Smalley said.

Savings Bonds Earmarked for College

If either of those options are not of interest to you, you can always withdraw the funds from the 529 account and use them elsewhere, Smalley said. But that move comes with a price. You’ll have to pay a 10% penalty plus taxes on the earnings in the account if you use the funds for anything other than qualified higher education expenses.

On your savings bonds — assuming they are either EE or I bonds — if they are owned in your name, your son does not have a right to them even though they were purchased with the intent to pay for his college education, Smalley said. You may continue to hold onto them or cash them in.

“Please note that if they are not used to pay for higher education expenses the interest on the bonds is not deductible on your tax return,” Smalley said.

If you purchased bonds in the name of your son, you can have them reissued in your name. The caveat here is that you cannot have them reissued if they were purchased with your son’s own money, such as with money from an UTMA.

“As you can see, not all is lost. While it must be disappointing that your son does not want to go to college now, it is not an irrevocable decision,” Smalley said. “He could always change his mind and go later or perhaps he finds his success on a path that does not travel through a college education.”

More from Credit.com

This article originally appeared on Credit.com.

TIME Education

White House Takes The Gloves Off in Education Fight

President Barack Obama holds a bilateral meeting with the Amir of Qatar - DC
Olivier Douliery—Pool/Corbis President Barack Obama looks on during a meeting with the Amir of Qatar, in the Oval Office of the White House in Washington on Feb. 24, 2015.

After years of bipartisan language urging Congress to seize on “common goals” and “shared interests” to revise a dysfunctional federal education law, the Obama administration appears to be taking the gloves off.

In a conference call with the press this week, the Department of Education slammed the House Republicans’ proposed bill to reauthorize the Elementary and Secondary Education Act, also known as No Child Left Behind, which is scheduled for a House vote Friday.

The Department of Education called the bill regressive, “bad for children” and said it would amount to hundreds of millions of dollars of cuts to education spending. It then stopped short—but just barely—of calling the House bill outright racist.

Those fightin’ words come on the heels of yet another pugnacious White House report, released Feb. 13, which described the House Republicans’ proposal as a vehicle for shifting federal dollars “from high-poverty schools to more affluent districts.”

Rep. John Kline, the Chairman of the House Committee on Education and the Workforce, has parried the administration’s attacks, arguing that the bill does not cut funding at all and that it simply changes the way federal dollars are allocated to low-income districts, which serve mostly black and Latino kids.

But Cecilia Muñoz, the director of the White House Domestic Policy Council, told TIME that these issues are “very, very important” to the White House. “It’s very, very hard to reconcile the contents of this bill with the president’s long term goal of making sure every child is successful in school,” she said.

From the Obama Administration’s perspective, there are two primary issues at stake here. The first is how the new education law allocates federal dollars—known as Title I funding—to low-income school districts, which disproportionately serve black and Latino students.

Under the current version of ESEA, known as No Child Left Behind, Title I funding goes to districts with the highest percentages of low-income kids. The idea is that poor kids who attend schools full of mostly middle- and upper-middle-class kids are in a much better position—and therefore less in need of federal help—than poor kids who attend schools with lots of other poor kids. That analysis, a senior Department of Education official told TIME, is based on “decades of research” into how low-income students perform at different schools.

The House Republican proposal, which mirrors language in a recent draft of the Senate version of the bill, would fundamentally change that formula. Instead of funneling federal dollars to the schools with the highest percentages of low-income students, Title I funding would be allocated on a per-student basis. Kline has said that rejiggering that formula allows every low-income child who attends a public school to receive his or her “fair share” of federal assistance.

The Administration argues that would be a disaster. Allocating Title I funding on a per-student basis would lead to huge funding cuts in 100 of the largest school districts in the country, according to a White House report. Philadelphia City School District, which is 55% black, could lose $412 million, according to the DOE. Shelby County schools in Tennessee, which are 81% black, could lose $114 million.

Kline dismissed the White House’s claims, saying that they were “budget gimmicks” and “scare tactics” that entered “the realm of make-believe.”

The second issue at stake is the overall federal education budget. As it is, federal education spending is still at sequestration levels, roughly $800 million below where it was before. The House bill proposes to more or less leave that spending level in place, increasing it by only a smidgen—from $14 to 14.8 billion total—until 2021. It does not cut spending, staffers say, it simply retains a budget slightly higher than the current status quo.

A senior Department of Education official told TIME that while it’s technically true that the House bill does not cut spending, the point is that “it will feel like a cut,” especially in low-income school districts that, under the House bill, might see less Title I funding too. “The House bill cements sequestration level budget caps for an additional six years,” he said, and does not increase, even to keep up with inflation or rising enrollment. “The result is that by 2021, schools will have less money than they had before 2012.”

This week’s battle of words is mostly a dress rehearsal for a much larger fight over the final version of ESEA. Senate Education Committee Chairman Lamar Alexander expects to bring a Senate version the floor next month, with a vote on a final bill this summer.

The House bill, which is up for a vote on Friday, won’t have an easy path to victory. In addition to scathing criticism from the Obama administration, it is also up against a growing coalition of opponents on the right. This week, conservative mainstays like the Heritage Action and the Club For Growth have been pushing Republican lawmakers to vote against the bill on the grounds that it allows too much federal control over education.

In an effort to quell this conservative mutiny, Republicans adopted an amendment to the bill Thursday night that would allow school districts and states to come up with their own assessment systems—a move that further alienates the Obama Administration.

President Obama announced this week that if the final rewrite of the federal education bill ends up looking like the House version, he will veto it.

Muñoz, who spoke to TIME over the phone on Tuesday, said that the White House will fight hard for a bill that reflects “the president’s idea of what education should be.”

“It’s our job, the federal government, Congress’ job, to make sure every student is successful,” she said, adding that the House Republicans’ bill does not do that. “It’s just manifestly true that when you reduce resource to a place like Detroit and increase resources to a place like Grosse Pointe, you’re undercutting our primary goal of ensuring that every child is successful,” she said.

TIME Education

A Perfect Storm Is Heading Toward Higher Education

Rear view of large group students at university amphitheatre.
Kristian Sekulic—Getty Images

Steve Cohen is an attorney at KDLM in New York.

With too-high tuition and unhappy parents, college administrators better get ready for some changes.

Colleges are facing a perfect storm that could shutter hundreds of them and leave many more wondering how to survive. Yet much of higher education’s leadership is in denial that anything is amiss.

The College Board just concluded its annual Higher Ed Colloquium of college presidents, admissions deans, and financial aid directors. I was invited to address the group about whether there is an irreconcilable gap between college costs and the stressed middle class. There is. And my message was about as popular as a hurricane forecast.

The perfect storm will be the culmination of soaring tuitions, technological disruption, and parent dissatisfaction.

Out-of-control tuition increases have been the stuff of parents’ nightmares and media headlines for years. The Bureau of Labor Statistics pegs it at a 1200% increase since 1978, far higher than health care’s 634% rise, or the Consumer Price Index’s 279% increase over the same period.

Most middle class families are ineligible for the government’s scholarship programs – Pell grants almost never go to kids whose parents earn more than $60,000. And colleges’ own financial aid programs typically don’t kick in until the family puts up the first monies known as the “Expected Family Contribution,” an amount dictated by a Congressional formula that most observers recognize as unrealistically high. For example, the EFC for a family of four earning $100,000 and with $50,000 in assets and just one child about to go off to college is expected to contribute the first $20,000 of the school costs—every year.

Exactly how education will be changed by technology—or by whom—is a constant betting game among Silicon Valley’s venture capitalists. But with an industry estimated at around $1.3 trillion annually—9% of the GDP—lots of entrepreneurs are looking to disrupt education just as their predecessors saw opportunities in music, publishing, and communications. Moreover, there are just as many innovators without a profit motive looking to change education in order to improve it and make it more accessible.

The third force in this intensifying maelstrom is parent dissatisfaction with colleges themselves. That’s not my speculation or provocation. It’s the conclusion of research on middle class parents conducted by the education site Noodle.

In December, Noodle surveyed nearly 1,000 middle-class parents—two-thirds with college bound kids and the rest with children who are currently in college or recently graduated. Unfortunately, what these parents want for their kids is not what colleges are delivering.

First, parents want their children to acquire real-world marketable skills. In fact, according to the survey, they want it even slightly more than they want their children to get a first-rate academic experience. The only other factors in the same range of importance seem obvious: a safe environment and a good fit for the child.

Money concerns also affect families’ choices about college: two-thirds say they will only consider sending their child to a school that offers a substantial financial aid package. Parents don’t want their children graduating with debt, nor do they want to incur debt themselves paying for college. And fully 55% of middle-class parents say they are seriously considering sending their kids to community colleges for two years instead. And the survey was conducted just before the President proposed making community college free.

What parents do not care about was as striking as what they do care about. It turns out that diversity – racial, cultural, and economic – is simply not very important to parents. Nor are campus speech codes, which have provided an endless array of astonishing—First Amendment defenders would say appalling—media stories. About 62% of major colleges enforce limits on what students or professors can say on campus. For example, the University of North Dakota bans student speech that “feels offensive” or “demeaning.” And the University of Central Florida suspended an accounting professor because he joked that his notoriously difficult exams were like a “killing spree.”

One other issue that is “hot” on college campuses but of no interest to parents is the anti-Israel boycott. This issue has been so vigorously debated on college campuses around the country that the issue ranked third on the Chronicle of Higher Education’s 2014 “Influence List.” But just seven percent of parents cared.

The gap between parents’ goals and colleges’ performance was pronounced. Parents’ biggest disappointment was their kids’ failure to acquire “real-world marketable skills.” Close behind was the mediocre success students have getting into a good graduate or professional school. And, significantly, parents felt that both they and their children were graduating with far too much debt. I summarized my reading of the Noodle results to the audience simply: colleges are earning a grade of about “C” on most measures.

Not surprisingly, much of the rhetoric at the Colloquium focused on why governments—federal and state—should allocate more of their budgets to higher education. Not a word was said about colleges reducing tuition or providing more financial aid from their endowments.

So what should colleges do? First, they need to recognize the inevitability of change. Change is coming, and those schools that embrace it are far more likely to survive. Second, they should start listening to the constituency that is paying the bills. Providing real job skills and job placement assistance—along with a solid education—should take priority over identifying potential micro-aggressions. And third, colleges must make a real effort to make college affordable to middle-class families.

If colleges hope to survive the inevitable changes that will roil higher education in the next few years, they cannot continue to ignore the middle class. If they do, they seriously risk being swept away.

TIME Ideas hosts the world's leading voices, providing commentary and expertise on the most compelling events in news, society, and culture. We welcome outside contributions. To submit a piece, email ideas@time.com.

TIME Education

You Can Now Get College Credit Without Ever Taking a Class

Students being evaluated for competency-based credit at Lipscomb University in Tennessee
Lipscomb University Students being evaluated for competency-based credit at Lipscomb University in Tennessee

At 56, Linda McCampbell discovered she could get the college degree she always wanted.

A Nashville paralegal for 30 years, McCampbell last year attended an eight-hour workshop to judge how her life experience might be cashed in for academic credits at Lipscomb University. The promise was alluring: the possibility of knocking months off a college education McCampbell had long abandoned as out of reach.

It turns out she qualified for an entire academic year’s worth of credits, and at a fraction of what two semesters of tuition would have cost.

“It wiped out my freshman year,” says McCampbell, who earned those credits by proving she could deal with a full inbox of tasks and solve problems with a group. The boost was enough to cure her of the longtime belief a degree was out of reach.

This sort of result that has led hundreds of colleges and universities to develop similar so-called competency-based programs, which let older students get academic credit by demonstrating proficiency in such things as leadership and organization.

That means those students can earn degrees more quickly and at a lower cost — even lower now that the U.S. Department of Education has begun a pilot program under which students at 40 institutions will be able to use federal financial aid to pay for it, which was not previously allowed.

But critics fear that in the rush to compete for students by promising them credits for experience, some colleges and universities will make getting competency-based credits too easy. Accreditors are still scrambling to set up standards for the practice. And a new study by the American Enterprise Institute raises other questions that remain unresolved, including how students will earn credit in this way, how much they will be charged for it and whether they will really save money over the long term.

Competency-based programs “could very easily devolve into diploma mills,” says Amy Laitinen, a former White House and Department of Education advisor who is now deputy director for higher education at the New America Foundation and an advocate of the concept. “It could go south very quickly.”

Designers of competency-based programs say they measure whether what people have already learned in life is enough for them to forgo academic courses typically required as prerequisites toward a degree.

Nineteen early adopters of the competency model — including Lipscomb, Southern New Hampshire University, Capella University and the University of Wisconsin — are working together to design standards for such programs in a collaboration called the Competency-Based Education Network, or C-BEN. (C-BEN is supported by the Lumina Foundation, a funder of the Hechinger Report, which produced this story.)

But many of the institutions being allowed to use financial aid for competency-based education are not associated with the effort to establish standards.

“My worry is that you’re going to see schools that don’t do the hard work,” says Michael Offerman, an Arizona-based consultant who helps universities and colleges develop competency-based programs. “If you don’t do it right, you could threaten not only your own institution, but also the movement as a whole.”

The nation’s six regional accreditors, whose job it is to ensure the quality of colleges and universities, have also joined together to figure out how to judge competency programs. It hasn’t been easy, says Kevin Sightler, a member of the task force who represents the Georgia-based Southern Association of Colleges and Schools Commission on Colleges.

“There’s a lot of confusion, even among the accreditors,” he says. “Everyone’s just trying to get their hands around it right now. It’s completely different from historical approaches.”

There’s little question accreditors will have their hands full soon. Competency-based programs are cropping up rapidly nationwide, from community colleges and small liberal arts colleges to the largest universities. Nine of the most active institutions alone collectively enroll more than 140,000 undergraduate and 57,000 graduate students in competency programs, according to the American Enterprise Institute report.

At least 200 schools are developing or considering competency-based programs, says Brian Fleming, an analyst with the higher-education consulting firm Eduventures.

“We think it’s only going to get bigger,” he said. “It is quite a Wild West.”

Lipscomb’s program has assessed more than 120 students, including McCampbell, since it started last year. In October, California’s Brandman University launched a fully online, competency-based bachelor’s degree with 44 students.

As colleges and universities see competitors bringing in new students with such programs, they’ll be tempted to cut corners, says Laurie Dodge, a Brandman vice chancellor and vice provost.

“Competency-based education is popular, and everybody wants a piece of it,” Dodge says. “There may be shortcuts or window-dressing.”

At its best, the competency model could help colleges turn out graduates who are prepared for the working world rather than just adept at cramming for tests. It could also bring in students at a time when enrollment is flat or declining, and when higher education is trying to tap into the growing market of students who are older than traditional college age. In the American Enterprise Institute study, 90% of the people who cashed in life experience for credit were 25 and older.

“I think it’s being seen as something that can help institutions sustain themselves,” says Charla Long, Lipscomb’s dean of professional studies. “This might eventually be seen as the new face of higher education.”

Lipscomb’s eight-hour assessment — the one that let McCampbell skip her freshman year — starts by giving students various tasks to complete within 90 minutes. Later, the students participate in leaderless workplace discussions about, for example, hiring policies.

Evaluators want to see students prove their critical thinking and problem-solving skills, Long says — something employers want, and complain that too few traditional college graduates have.

About 1 million people in Tennessee have earned some college credits but no degree, Long says, and competency-based programs could make it easier for them to get one.

For McCampbell, who started looking at schools once her two children graduated from college themselves, the Lipscomb program opened doors that were closed when she was younger.

“I didn’t grow up in money. They even laughed at you if you brought up college,” says McCampbell, who is pursuing a bachelor’s degree in integrated studies. “Something was always missing.”

This story was produced by The Hechinger Report, a nonprofit, independent news organization focused on inequality and innovation in education

TIME health

Texas Teacher Will Donate a Kidney to 6-Year-Old Student

Image Source—Getty Images/Image Source

After searching for two years for a donor, doctors called her the 'perfect match'

An elementary teacher from Texas has agreed to donate one of her kidneys to a six-year-old student who has been in need of a donor for two years.

Doctors told Matthew Parker’s family there was only a 1% chance of finding a suitable donor for Matthew because his body had rejected a previous transplant. But his teacher, Lindsey Painter, got tested after his physicians released a public plea for donors. Remarkably, doctors said she was the “perfect match.”

“When it came back that I was a match, it was shocking,” Painter told KVUE, a Texas ABC affiliate. “It did take a while to wrap my head around it, to think that I can do this, I can still live a normal life…and I get to make this amazing difference in Matthew’s life.”

Matthew can only go to school twice a week, driving down to San Antonio on the three other days for dialysis treatments. Once he gets a functional kidney, doctors expect he will make a full recovery and be ready to live a normal life. He and Painter will undergo surgery in mid-March.

[KVUE]

TIME Education

A Fraternity Is Suing Wesleyan University Over an Order to Admit Women

Delta Kappa Epsilon accuses the university of “political correctness gone wrong”

A fraternity at Wesleyan University in Connecticut announced Thursday that it is filing a lawsuit against the institution accusing it of sexual discrimination.

Five months ago, the all-male fraternities at Wesleyan were ordered to admit women as both members and residents, or shut down, reports the New York Times.

But Delta Kappa Epsilon (DKE) and its alumni group, the Kent Literary Club, claim the organization is being targeted unfairly, saying the college’s “selective discrimination is an egregious example of political correctness gone wrong.”

Fraternities had three years to assimilate women into their organizations and housing, but DKE claims it was suddenly told it had to be coeducational in the next school year. The fraternity also said the university had rejected its proposal that women could live at the house but in the form of a sorority rather than join the fraternity.

DKE argues that the university allows other students to live in single-sex dorms or in housing that caters to various interests and cultural identities, such as the Women of Color House; the Turath House for Muslim, Arab and Middle Eastern students; or the Light House for Christian students.

Wesleyan said in a statement that DKE “failed to take any meaningful steps” toward coed living and argued that the fraternity “has historically operated very differently than other special-interest program houses at Wesleyan in many ways.”

[NYT]

TIME Education

These College Majors Barely Earn More Than High School Grads

Some majors just aren't lucrative

Parents will be relieved to hear that the job market is improving for recent college graduates. But how likely grads are to get a job after school highly depends on their major.

An annual report from the Georgetown University Center on Education and Workforce found that college is still worth the cost for most students in the current economy. Unemployment rates for recent graduates in most majors declined last year. No matter the major, young professionals who graduated from college were more likely to be employed than their high school educated counterparts—except for those who majored in architecture or the social sciences.

Unsurprisingly, those who majored in the STEM fields (science, technology, engineering and math) had the best wage advantage over their high school educated competitors. Engineering majors earned on average $57,00 per year, almost twice that of the average high school graduate in the same field.

But some majors aren’t so lucrative. The study found that college was the least economical for graduates who majored in arts, psychology or social work. They earn only $31,000 per year on average—only $1,000 more than the average high school educated worker.

Read next: Why States Are Fighting About American History Class

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TIME Education

UMass Amherst Reverses Ban for Iranian Students

After university officials sought advice from lawyers and the State Department

The University of Massachusetts said Wednesday that it would continue to accept Iranian nationals into science and engineering programs at its Amherst campus, reversing a controversial policy change announced last week. The change came after university officials sought advice from lawyers and the State Department, the school said.

“This approach reflects the university’s longstanding commitment to wide access to educational opportunities,” Michael Malone, the university’s vice chancellor for research and engagement, said in a statement. “We have always believed that excluding students from admission conflicts with our institutional values and principles. It is now clear, after further consultation and deliberation, that we can adopt a less restrictive policy.”

The university said it made the policy change in order to comply with a 2012 law that imposed sanctions on Iran as an effort to prevent it from developing a nuclear weapon…
TIME Education

Why States Are Fighting About American History Class

It's a question of American exceptionalism — and what it means

The Oklahoma state legislature passed a bill this week directing its education board to “adopt a certain United States History program” that would be offered to students instead of the Advanced Placement course on the same topic, which legislators have accused of representing the nation in a negative light.

It’s the latest round in an ongoing fight over changes made to the A.P. U.S. History program for this school year — Colorado drew protests over just such a fight this past fall, and, as ThinkProgress reports, similar fights have sprung up in several other states — and a perfect illustration of why the matter is unlikely to be resolved any time soon.

Here’s what the Oklahoma bill says: the new curriculum must include many of the “founding documents” of the nation, as well as those relating to the “foundation or maintenance of the representative form of limited government, the free-market economic system and American exceptionalism”; schools that stick with the A.P. curriculum will lose funding for the program.

The list of particular documents that Oklahoma students must study includes some obvious items — the Mayflower Compact, the Bill of Rights — as well as several unarguably important but perhaps less foundational documents, like Ronald Reagan’s speech on the 40th anniversary of D-Day.

Although the legislators have a variety of issues with the A.P. program, Tulsa World reported that the bill’s author Rep. Dan Fisher said during debate on the legislation that he targeted the U.S. History course because the new curriculum doesn’t give enough weight to American exceptionalism.

But what would it mean for a curriculum to focus on American exceptionalism? The idea seems easy enough to grasp — in 1988, TIME defined it as “the divine dispensation that the nation thought it enjoyed in the world”; in other words, the idea that America is special — but, though it’s nearly as old as the nation to which it refers, its meaning is still up for debate.

For one thing — though versions of the concept go back to the founding of the United States and the Puritan notion of the “city on the hill” — the actual phrase has murky origins. It’s often attributed erroneously to Alexis de Tocqueville, the 19th-century French sociological observer of American mores, who noted the ways in which the new nation differed from its old-world origins. Others have traced the coinage to the unlikely source of Joseph Stalin, who used it to explain why America was slow to take to Communism (which, he naturally thought, was a bad thing), though the myth that he came up with the wording has been debunked with evidence that the word “exceptionalism” was in use at least as early as the Civil War era.

In recent years it’s been getting a lot more play — Google shows growth since around 1950, with a sharp uptick in the last two decades, starting right around when Seymour Martin Lipset wrote the book American Exceptionalism: A Double-Edged Sword — and President Obama, often in response to claims that he doesn’t think his country is special enough, has become one of its most vocal boosters. “[Having a global childhood] has reinforced my belief in American exceptionalism,” he told TIME in 2008. “One of the things that happens when you live overseas is you realize how special America is–our values, our ideals, our Constitution, our rule of law, the idea of equality and opportunity. Those are things that we often take for granted, and it’s only when you get out of the country that you see the majority of the world doesn’t enjoy those same privileges.”

And yet, as pointed out by a 2012 essay by James W. Ceaser in the journal American Political Thought, there are multiple ways to understand the phrase. For one thing, though the word “exceptional” has positive overtones, it can also be a neutral description of difference; he writes that, in terms of sociology, the latter is more common and can be used to discuss the negative qualities of a culture that make it an exception to the norm. (For example: the Communist view that America is exceptional due to its failure to inspire a workers’ movement.) And secondly, he writes, the dominant idea that the nation has a special mission can mean a variety of things, from a religious sense of purpose to a political mission to spread democracy.

During the debate in Oklahoma, a representative of the College Board objected that the claim that the curriculum ignored exceptionalism was “not true.” After all, he pointed out, the framework of the course doesn’t actually dictate which moments or ideas can be used to teach its “thematic learning objectives” (identity; work, exchange and technology; people; politics and power; America in the world; environment and geography; and idea, beliefs and culture).

But whether the accusation is “true” depends, ultimately, on how one views American exceptionalism. Is it a purely academic matter of historical ideology? A matter of mere distinction? Or a matter of being not just different, but also special and better? It’s a tough question, but as the fight over school curricula moves forward, one group of Americans is left uniquely positioned to debate it: high-school students.

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