Gov. Mary Fallin is weighing a high-stakes decision on arguably the most controversial bill still awaiting her signature — a measure to scrap Common Core academic standards.
If she signs it, schools would quickly have to shift gears and teach to pre-2010 standards for math and English, only to have to switch again to yet another set of benchmarks still to be developed. There also could be a loss of flexibility in how millions of dollars in federal aid to education is spent in Oklahoma and the possibility of closures and personnel replacements at underperforming schools. The bill also would give latitude to politicians with no training in education to hand-tool new standards as they see fit.
Steven Crawford, executive director of the Cooperative Council for Oklahoma School Administration, has a word for what will happen if the bill becomes law: “chaos.”
“We believe it goes way beyond the removal of Common Core and would cause a lot of uncertainty for our schools and confusion with what they are supposed to do to meet other mandates,” he said.
Opponents of Common Core came to the state Capitol numerous times this session, arguing the benchmarks are a federal intrusion. It’s become a hot-button issue with states’ rights advocates, even though the standards actually were developed by education chiefs and governors and voluntarily adopted by 45 states and the District of Columbia. One state, Indiana, has repealed it.
Educators are among those closely watching what Fallin will do with the measure, House Bill 3399.
Melissa Ahlgrim, elementary language arts curriculum coordinator for Putnam City Schools, said some teachers are concerned about what would happen if Fallin signs the bill to repeal Common Core.
“If she repeals, we have a whole lot of work to do to go back and readjust all of our curriculum to meet a different set of standards,” she said. “We’re talking a lot of hours.
“My teachers are extremely worried that all of their hard work is going to have to be redone. They’re proud of what they’re doing and they’re proud of what their students are achieving. They’re willing to do whatever is best for their kids, they just need to know what is expected of them. That’s a large part of their frustration.”
Proponents of Common Core, including the Greater Oklahoma City Chamber, have praised the rigor of the standards as being necessary to prepare students for college and careers. The benchmarks are intended to emphasize critical thinking.
Rep. Jason Nelson, R-Oklahoma City, a co-author of the repeal bill, says it’s not so much the content of the academic standards but the issue of federal overreach that has people stirred up.
“The one thing I have noticed that unites such a broad spectrum of people against it is the idea of giving up control to the federal government or a group of states,” he said. “That’s the one thing that has everybody unified. They don’t like the idea of having to go to somebody outside the state to do what we think is in the best interest of the kids in our school system.”
Jenni White, president of Restore Oklahoma Public Education, said that while Common Core was not created by the federal government, the U.S. Department of Education provides incentives in the form of funding and grants to states that use the standards.
“We want to make sure all Oklahoma children have the highest educational standards that are appropriate for Oklahoma,” White said. “You simply can’t do that if you are utilizing generic national standards.”
More federal control?
Efforts to have less federal direction for Oklahoma schools could lead to more federal control, at least in the short term.
The No Child Left Behind Act, signed by President George W. Bush, contains academic performance standards the vast majority of Oklahoma schools don’t achieve. These schools would be subject to strong federal directives aimed at bringing them in compliance, but the state is able to avoid this in part because Common Core academic standards help give the state a waiver under the act.
If these standards were repealed and replaced with something less rigorous, the state would be in danger of losing that waiver, state Education Department officials said. Without the waiver:
•A total of $27.2 million in federal funds for improving achievement among the disadvantaged could be set aside and used for other, supplemental educational services in the state.
•More poorly performing schools would be forced to implement plans that could include school closure or replacement of the principal and 50 percent of the staff.
•Transportation would be required for students in poorly performing schools to be taken to non-failing schools.
Another point of concern for critics of the bill is the power it would give legislators to help produce new standards.
Educational officials would draw up the new standards, but lawmakers would have the power under the bill to not only approve or disapprove the standards, but to actually change, or rewrite them.
Phil Bacharach, spokesman for the state Education Department, characterizes this as “alarming.”
“You run the danger of politicizing something that should not be politicized,” he said.
Rep. Ann Coody, R-Lawton, a longtime teacher and educator, said some of the same legislators who adopted the Common Core standards in Oklahoma now want to repeal them and preside over yet another set of benchmarks.
“I don’t think politicians should try to become educators,” she said. “We have people who are trained in education who far better understand how a student learns. We’re getting into something most politicians don’t understand.”
What they’re saying
“If it is repealed, basically it’s a waste of our time and energy. We’ve spent two years writing curriculum and our pacing guides and our assessments to meet the new standards and now they’re telling us ‘No, we’re going to give you a new set of standards.’ Legislators can pull specific standards they don’t like. That’s a little concerning to me as a teacher, that now we’re going to let political winds determine our standards.”
“People say, ‘Have you talked to educators about this?’ Yes, and I get points of view all over the map. I could give you a list of educators who hate Common Core, and a list of educators who love it, and a bunch that say it doesn’t really matter, it depends on the teacher in the classroom and the student in the classroom.”
“Studies have shown for decades that local control of education, bringing a child’s education at the most local point is that which is best for the child. That’s what produces great educational results.”
“I think it (repeal of Common Core) is going to be detrimental to our process. We’ve invested countless dollars as a district, a large sum of money in terms of training, hours spent preparing and implementing the standards.”
“Gov. Fallin is carefully reviewing the language in HB 3399. She is taking several days to meet with parents and educators to discuss how the bill would affect Oklahoma children and Oklahoma schools. She expects to act on the bill sometime next week.”