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SBE gets earnest earful from Common Core critics

The Common Core Standards, a hot topic for the State Board of Education three years ago, surfaced again Wednesday at the end of an otherwise-routine meeting when protesters showed up to oppose the new learning standards.

The group, about 20 people who said they were loosely affiliated, like-minded citizens, carried a single message: The standards represent an unwelcome federal intrusion into local schools — and the board should rescind its approval of them.

Carolyn Fairchild, who identified herself as a retired teacher from Teller County, called the standards “unconstitutional” because “Common Core strips local control away.”

“We’re all puppets now dancing to the tune of D.C. bureaucrats and the national organizations. Please stand up and cut the puppet strings off your arms,” she told the board during its public comment period today.

The board approved the standards narrowly in 2010, with a 4-3 vote. Three of the members who participated in that vote — one in support and two opposed — are no longer on the board.

In general, support for the Common Core is solid in Colorado, with backers including leading legislators like Sen. Mike Johnston, D-Denver; the state Department of Education, and a wide variety of both traditional and reform-oriented education groups. 

The protesters, many of them sporting anti-Common Core T-shirts and visors, began the day by picketing outside the Department of Education and chatting with East Colfax Avenue passersby during the board’s daylong meeting.

Then, as the session wound to its close, about a dozen members of the group trooped to the microphone in the boardroom, urging the board to rescind its earlier approval of the Common Core.

Here’s a sample of comments from other speakers:

  • “The title of my talk that I’m not going to give is ‘Get Ready for Tyranny,’” said Kathy Svenson, noting the three-minute time limit on each speaker. She said she’s a Delta County school board member who was speaking for herself.
  • “It’s kind of like Russia or China … the state knows best,” said Julie White of Montrose.
  • The Common Core “will eliminate parent involvement [and] must be stopped completely,” argued Anita Stapleton of Pueblo.
  • “Please withdraw Colorado from the mandates of the Common Core” because it violates the 10th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, said Cindy Galbreath of Teller County, who then proceeded to read the amendment, which concerns federal and state division of powers.

Most of the witnesses identified themselves on the sign-up sheet as “citizen-parent.” Some of the literature the group distributed carried the label “ParentLedReform.org.” Parent Led Reform is a Douglas County-based group that opposes many education reforms.

After about 45 minutes of testimony, SBE chair Paul Lundeen politely thanked the speakers, saying, “We’ll take into careful consideration your comments.” Board members didn’t respond to the speakers nor ask questions, as is the board’s practice during public comment sessions.

Protests mirrors national pushback

The Common Core sets standards for what students are supposed to learn in language arts and math. They were developed under the leadership of the National Governors’ Association and the Council of Chief State School officers, not the federal government.

While state participation in the standards is voluntary, the Common Core has become a part of the larger education reform agenda being pushed by the Obama administration, education reform and business groups and many state departments of education and governors.

Supporters  argue that the standards will set a higher bar for what students need to learn and allow for common bars across states — as well as tests that can be shared across states.

Forty-five states and the District of Columbia previously adopted the standards, along with Minnesota for English only. (Non-participating states are Alaska, Nebraska, Texas and Virginia.)

Pushback against the Common Core has come from conservative groups, primarily grassroots ones, that fear they will lead to a national curriculum and a federal takeover of education. Some critics also argue the standards aren’t rigorous enough. But a number of Republican governors and conservative education think tanks defend the standards.

Criticism of the standards has boiled up recently around the nation. In Michigan lawmakers have blocked funding for implementation of the Common Core while they investigate the issue. The Indiana legislature has “paused” implementation of the standards in that state, and Pennsylvania has also delayed implementation. Controversy about the standards has also emerged in Iowa, Louisiana and Mississippi.

Some states also have already pulled away from the Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers, one of the two groups, funded with federal Race to the Top funds, that are building tests to measure students against the new standards. Colorado is one of the states on a PARCC’s governing board and intends to use the tests starting in the 2014-2015 school year.

Among the states that have dropped out of PARCC, won’t field-test the assessments or plan to use their own tests are Florida, Georgia, Indiana, Kentucky, Oklahoma and Pennsylvania. Fourteen states, including Colorado, and the District of Columbia plan to field-test the PARCC assessments next year before the formal rollout in 2015. Field tests will carry no stakes for students, teachers and schools.

In August 2010, when the State Board voted on the Common Core, then-member Peggy Littleton, a conservative Republican from Colorado Springs, organized the unsuccessful opposition, even quoting Patrick Henry’s “liberty or death” speech at one point. (Read the EdNews story about that meeting.)

State officials said there was a 90 percent overlap between the Common Core and state English and math standards adopted in December 2009.

At the time, uncertainty about how the board would vote raised concerns that failure to adopt the standards would jeopardize Colorado’s chances in the federal Race to the Top competition. The state lost the competition anyway.

The Common Core came up again during a December 2012 SBE informational hearing on education issues that was organized by then-Chair Bob Schaffer, a Fort Collins Republican who no longer sits on the board. Several witnesses at that session criticized the standards (see EdNews story).

The Common Core hasn’t been discussed much by the board since then.

In other action … our feelings are hurt

Earlier, during a briefing about a new group that is studying teacher preparation and licensing, board members expressed unhappiness that no state board members sit on the panel.

“I was very surprised that our chair wasn’t invited to participate nor any member of the state board,” said member Elaine Gantz Berman of Denver. “I just find it a very disappointing omission.”

She was referring to a group named the LEAD Compact Working Group. (See this EdNews story for background on the panel.)

Lundeen, who described himself as “a little bit cranky about this,” noted that the board has been trying to create a higher profile for itself, and this is “an area where we actually have authority.”

“To be ignored is not an encouraging sign,” he said.