Kindergarten students trace letters and digraphs onto a plastic gridded sheet during their phonics lesson at Benteen Elementary School in Atlanta. 
Photo: ALYSSA POINTER / ALYSSA.POINTER@AJC.COM
Photo: ALYSSA POINTER / ALYSSA.POINTER@AJC.COM

Kemp plan to “dismantle” Common Core rekindles school controversy

Georgia Gov. Brian Kemp is crafting a plan to “dismantle” the Common Core education standards, resurrecting a long-simmering political issue that puts school administrators on the defensive.

The governor told The Atlanta Journal-Constitution this week he and state school Superintendent Richard Woods are discussing ways to eliminate the reading, writing and math standards with the goal of “letting our teachers teach.”

It’s not clear what action Kemp will take, and he was vague on specifics. But his aides said he likely does not have the authority to act unilaterally, as Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis did when he signed an executive order to end his state’s use of the standards.

Gov. Brian Kemp speaks at the Georgia GOP convention.
Photo: AJC/HYOSUB SHIN

Kemp will have the support of the state’s top education official. Fellow Republican Woods said he is “incredibly encouraged” by the push to eliminate what remains of Common Core in Georgia, adding that earlier attempts to scale back the program didn’t go far enough.

“My administration has been able to halt the spread of Common Core to other subject areas, such as science and social studies,” he said, “but this decisive action at the Governor’s level is what’s needed to fully eliminate Common Core in our state, an action that will be of great benefit to our students.”

>> RELATED | Florida governor looks to end Common Core education program

The plans sparked immediate backlash from critics. Some analysts, parents and lawmakers stressed the need for standards and uniformity in teaching. Others warned of the perils of reopening a political fight that took energy and attention away from other pressing education issues.

“Instead of refighting these fights or having a governor play to his political base, it would be helpful if the conversation was instead on how we help kids do better in math, reading and writing,” said Michael J. Petrilli, president of the Thomas B. Fordham Institute, a conservative-leaning organization that advocates for school choice. “How can Georgia catch up to some other states nearby, including Florida, that are making way more progress?"

‘Autonomy’

Common Core is a set of standards established with the help of former Republican Gov. Sonny Perdue to ensure students nationwide learned the same concepts at the same time. That goal was largely met with applause, not derision, when Georgia adopted its take on the standards in July 2010. The standards say what students should know when; they do not dictate curriculum or how to teach it. For instance, a Georgia standard for third grade: “Write opinion pieces on topics or texts, supporting a point of view with reasons.”

Supporters, including the state education system under Woods’ predecessor, Republican John Barge, called them an important economic development tool and not a “hidden agenda” from overreaching federalists.

Teacher Rudoph Liggins at Chapel Hill Elementary in DeKalb County gives instructions for building a bridge out of spaghetti and marshmallows, part of an experiment for a class segment on types of bridges in this AJC file photo.
Photo: BOB ANDRES / BANDRES@AJC.COM

But a tea party-infused opposition erupted among ruling Republicans a few years later, fueled by those who saw an attempted federal takeover by President Barack Obama of sacred state education policy.

By 2013, it had mushroomed into one of the most controversial issues in Georgia Republican politics, with school boards across the state fighting over the standards and political candidates allying with grassroots groups to oppose the program.

At the state GOP’s 2013 meeting, activists voted unanimously to urge state leaders to withdraw from Common Core because it “obliterates Georgia’s constitutional autonomy.”

State Sen. Lindsey Tippins, who chaired the Senate Education Committee at the height of the controversy, summed up the competing narratives.

On one hand, he said Tuesday, “nobody wants the federal government shoving stuff down your throat.” And yet, he added, there still needs to be a standardized way to compare schools in each state so low performance can be identified and addressed.

>> PREVIOUS COVERAGE | Common Core becomes uncommon controversy for GOP

“Thirty-six inches needs to be a yard,” said Tippins, R-Marietta. “You need to have that uniformity if you’re going to have any credibility with the test results.”

Then-Gov. Nathan Deal supported the standards but tried to handle the outcry from his party’s grassroots by ordering a review. It prompted tweaks that didn’t appease many critics.

Woods, the superintendent, said Georgia’s math and English standards still closely mirror Common Core after those “minor” changes.

Nathalie Malkoff, a parent in northwest Atlanta, said she’s been convinced by parent information sessions at her child’s school that the standards are vital. The schools need to be held accountable by the guidelines, she said, or parents will lose confidence and flee to alternatives such as private schools.

“If there wasn’t any measure,” she said, “then I as a parent would feel lost.”

‘Deeper dive’

In recent years, the Common Core debate has been supplanted by illegal immigration, abortion restrictions and gun rights as the dominant issues in the Georgia GOP. It’s also been overshadowed by other K-12 priorities for Republicans, such as school vouchers and tax credits scholarships.

Still, it holds a significant appeal to many in the state GOP’s deeply-conservative base – the bloc of voters that helped Kemp clinch his November victory. It also appeals to critics of tests tied to the standards. Meg Norris, a former teacher, co-founded the anti-testing group Opt Out Georgia. She wants to eliminate the standards and start over.

Dan Ray, holds up a sign with other opponents of Common Core outside the Palm Beach County School Board offices before a meeting in this 2014 file photo, in West Palm Beach.
Photo: Greg Lovett / The Palm Beach Post

“I can’t even explain how horribly it’s dumbed down our kids,” said Norris, who started a private school in Pickens County that supports home schooled students. “I have seen it firsthand. It’s heartbreaking how much remediation I have to do with public school kids.”

The anti-Common Core force was on display at the Georgia GOP convention over the weekend, when more than 1,500 delegates crowded a Savannah convention hall and cheered Kemp’s promise to “dismantle Common Core, reduce high-stakes testing” and take on the education status quo.

In a follow-up interview this week, Kemp said he was conferring with Woods about his options. But he said it would take more time than some other k-12 policy promises, such as the teacher pay hike in the state budget this year.

“I would hate to go into too many details now, but it’s something we’re working on. I think people are frustrated out there. Those are things we couldn’t fix quickly, like we did during the session with the teacher pay raise,” he said.

“We’re now starting to dig into the things that take a little deeper dive.”


Common Core origins

The Common Core standards were developed in 2010 by the National Governors Association and the Council of Chief State School Officers. Georgia Gov. Sonny Perdue, a Republican, co-chaired the initiative. The effort grew out of a 2008 report by both organizations that said common standards in math and English that tracked international standards were necessary if the country was to remain globally competitive.

In 2009, the administration of President Barack Obama launched the Race to the Top grant initiative, promising badly needed school funding in the wake of the Great Recession. States that wanted the money were encouraged to adopt common standards.

In 2010, after a draft of the Common Core standards was released, Georgia approved its own standards modeled on them: the Common Core Georgia Performance Standards. Soon after, the state was awarded a Race to the Top grant worth $400 million.

Georgia made minor changes to the standards beginning with the 2015-16 school year, renaming them the “Georgia Standards of Excellence.”

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