A voting booth. Great for up/down votes! Terrible for policy nuance.

A voting booth. Great for up/down votes! Terrible for policy nuance.

The Massachusetts petitioners who want voters to reject the Common Core were in court this week, making the case that their ballot question deserves to see the light of day. I'll be pleasantly surprised if the question gets thrown out, as it seems unlikely that the state's Supreme Judicial Court will rule against the question.

That said, the final arguments in the case, which The Lowell Sun covered, hinged on an interesting technical question which gets to the heart of what educational standards really mean. Here's the lawyer for the group that wants to keep the Common Core (and get rid of the ballot question):

Voters, unlike the Legislature, can't take a ballot initiative and amend it or negotiate with each other to come to a compromise ... A reasonable voter might support getting rid of Common Core but would not want to pay the money to have the state invent entirely new test questions every year.

The actual ballot question wants to accomplish two separate things: first, throw out the Common Core, and second, make all test questions on state assessments public every year. These are separate, but related, issues, and putting them on the ballot introduces a level of policy nuance to a ballot question which is better left to the legislature; there are reasons we don't legislate at the voting booth, and this is one of those reasons.

Tactical issues aside, the more important issue is that the two-headed question illuminates the interconnectedness of standards, testing, and accountability. This case is not just an assault on one particular set of standards; in undermining the Common Core, the petitioners for this measure want to dismantle the entire foundation of educational standards in the United States, which is the single feature that all high-performing countries seem to share when it comes to their educational systems. We can - and in fact, should - have public debates about how high standards should be, how often we should conduct testing, whether our current testing batteries are too time-consuming, and how much school and educator performance should depend on the outcomes of those tests. What we cannot do, however, is destroy the entire foundation of educational accountability, lest we go back to the dark ages of the 1980s (shudder), when a complete lack of accountability hid massive opportunity gaps and a backsliding national education infrastructure.