Opponents of Common Core Open New Fronts in Battle Against Standards After a Series of Defeats

With repeal bills failing to get enough votes, opponents of Common Core turn their attention elsewhere

Janet Barresi, state superintendent, gestures as she speaks during a State Board of Education meeting in Oklahoma City, Wednesday, Aug. 27, 2014. AP Photo/Sue Ogrocki

Fiery anti-Common Core campaign rhetoric hasn’t translated into many victories for those seeking to repeal the standards. Legislators in 19 states introduced bills to repeal the Common Core this session. So far none have succeeded. Repeal bills in even the reddest states – states like Mississippi, Arizona, and both Dakotas – have failed to make it to governors’ desks this year.

“If you follow Twitter, watch Fox News or listen to [Republican presidential] candidates, you would think this is so unpopular that most states have dropped it,” said Michael Petrilli, the president of the Thomas B. Fordham Institute, a conservative-leaning think tank that advocates for the standards. “But we’ve only lost one state, Oklahoma, and we have very red states still moving ahead with the Common Core.”

In fact, Indiana also repealed the standards last year, though analysts say its replacement is similar to the Common Core in many respects. South Carolina also repealed the standards and is still working on new standards.

So what happened? Petrilli and other members of a panel, convened at an Education Writers Association event in Denver for reporters last week, said anti-Common Core legislators couldn’t get enough votes to repeal the standards because fellow lawmakers had concerns about the financial and practical implications of such a move. Instead, they said, opponents of the standards are now focusing on a different target – the new Common Core aligned tests that students are taking this spring.

“The wave of opposition has crested,” Deven Carlson, a political science professor at the University of Oklahoma, told reporters at the event, which was hosted by the University of Colorado Denver School of Public Affairs.. “Republican legislators have seen the difficulties in Oklahoma.”

When Oklahoma repealed the Common Core, it temporarily lost a waiver to federal requirements that all students be proficient in math and English by 2014, which put its federal education funding in jeopardy. The state regained its exemption from those requirements after its higher education system certified that the standards that replaced the Common Core were “college-and-career ready.” Carlson said that “took a lot of work and a lot of effort,” which has dissuaded other states from going down that path.

Related: The ‘common’ in Common Core fractures as state support falters

Petrilli argued that another factor has dampened the anti-Common Core fervor. He said that many state-level Republicans that might otherwise have joined the fight against the standards backed down when they realized they could anger major campaign donors.

Common Core opponents wave signs and cheer at a rally opposing Mississippi’s continued use of the Common Core academic standards on the steps of the Capitol in Jackson, Miss., Tuesday, Jan. 6, 2015. More than 100 opponents of the Common Core academic standards gathered for a brief meeting before the Legislature opened, part of lobbying day meant to encourage lawmakers to reject continued use of the standards in Mississippi’s public schools.”

“In states like Mississippi and Wyoming, the business groups have stood up and said this is what we really care about,” said Petrilli. “These are the business groups that write the checks to the Republicans.”

Thwarted in their efforts to repeal the standards, elected officials who oppose the Common Core are now turning their attention to who should write the tests aligned with the standards and how the results from these tests should be used when evaluating teachers.

“We have moved away from just looking at the standards, which is nebulous to people,” said Carlson. “The debate is moving away from less tangible standards to tangible assessments, accountability.”

While a full repeal bill failed in Mississippi, politicians there did succeed in pulling the state out of one of the two federally sponsored consortia of states that developed tests for the new standards.

At last count, according to Education Week, 28 states plus the District of Columbia were planning to use either the common assessments developed by the PARCC (the Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers) or Smarter Balanced assessment consortia. In the early days of the Common Core, most states were expected to go with one or the other of those state coalitions. Now, many states including New York, Florida, Tennessee, and North Carolina, are going their own way.

Meanwhile, movements to have students opt out of these new tests have sprung up across the country in liberal communities like Portland, Oregon and Chicago and more conservative places like North Dakota and Arkansas.

Lawmakers across the country have introduced “parents’ bill of rights” legislation that would make it easier for parents to have their students sit out these tests.

Many of these opt-out movements – the one in Chicago is a prime example – have been led or assisted by educators and their unions.

Mary Cathryn Ricker, the executive vice president of the American Federation of Teachers, told reporters why she thinks teachers, who have tended to favor the standards in polls, are joining the fight against Common Core tests.

“You are spending more time learning about Common Core today than most of our teachers are getting in professional development,” said Ricker at the EWA event. “An [English language learner] teacher told me that without AFT training, he would have had 45 minutes of training for putting these standards into place for his students.”

Related: Will weak teacher training ruin the Common Core?

Ricker said it’s important to “peel back” what issues teachers are having with the standards.

“It’s one thing if [a teacher] could name a standard that is out of line,” said Ricker. ”But if your complaint is that all you got was a website that said, ‘here’s what you need to do,’ that’s different. They are feeling unprepared.”

Ricker said teachers could have a number of issues with the implementation of the new standards that are not about the Common Core at all.

Hundreds of Albuquerque High School students stage a walkout Monday, March 2, 2015, in Albuquerque, NM, to protest a new standardized test they say isn’t an accurate measurement of their education. Students frustrated over the new exam walked out of schools across the state Monday in protest as the new exam was being given. The backlash came as millions of U.S. students start taking more rigorous exams aligned with Common Core standards.

“It could be that after watching your school districts scrape by for years, you see that now they are spending all of this money on technology to take these new tests,” added Ricker. “Or it could be that you are locked out of computer labs for the next three weeks or the next six weeks for testing. I understand if you are frustrated that you are locked out of this million-dollar resource at your school.”

Petrilli agreed that the center of the debate was now the tests and how the scores from those tests will be used.

He said that Kentucky, which started testing students on the new standards in 2012, and New York, which started in 2013, provide an excellent case study of this. Kentucky is not using the results from its Common Core tests to evaluate teachers; New York is.

Related: New York school beats the odds by “going rogue” on Common Core

“Teacher evaluations are the difference between Kentucky and New York,” said Petrilli.  “It’s because [New York Governor Andrew Cuomo] has refused to back down from using these scores for teacher evaluations. There is all this anger from teachers and rightfully so. That is the issue.”

Petrilli pointed out that the New Jersey Education Association, a teachers’ union, is running an ad against the new tests in that state for the same reason.

If the opt-out movements are successful, there could be serious consequences for states and districts when it comes to federal funding.

Daniel Thatcher, a senior policy specialist at the National Conference of State Legislatures, said that’s because federal law mandates that 95 percent of students take annual standardized tests in math and English.

He also pointed out that one type of anti-Common Core bill has been successful.  Legislators in many states, complaining that they were left out of the writing of the Common Core, have passed bills to make sure that never happens again. Thatcher said 15 states have adopted bills that give elected officials more power over the approval of future academic standards.

[Cross-posted at The Hechinger Report]

Emmanuel Felton

Emmanuel Felton is a staff writer. Prior to joining The Hechinger Report, he covered education, juvenile justice and child services for the New York World. He received a bachelor’s degree from Emory University and a master’s from Columbia University’s Graduate School of Journalism.