Common Core becomes uncommon controversy for GOP

The most controversial issue in Georgia’s Republican Party right now may not be tax cuts or social issues. It may be the contentious debate surrounding Common Core, the voluntary set of reading, math and writing standards that has inspired a groundswell of opposition.

School boards across Georgia are embroiled in debate over the national standards. Political candidates are pledging their opposition or hedging their support. And grassroots groups are springing up with vows to fight the program, which Georgia and 44 other states voluntarily embraced.

On Saturday the forces rallying against the education standards notched their biggest win yet. The leaders of Georgia’s Republican Party voted unanimously to urge state leaders to withdraw from the program because it “obliterates Georgia’s constitutional autonomy.”

The fight centers on standards aimed at ensuring Georgia students learn the same concepts as children in other states. That goal was largely met with applause, not derision, when it was adopted here in July 2010. But a tea party-infused opposition since erupted among ruling Republicans, fueled by those who see an attempted federal takeover of sacred state education policy.

The fate of the debate could cost taxpayers millions of dollars, deepen a rift between politicians who support the standards and those who do not, and dominate discourse over education policy in next year's legislative session.

Common Core “is a huge mistake and our students will suffer because of this,” said state Sen. William Ligon, a Brunswick Republican who backs legislation that would free Georgia of “private interests” that he views as threats to the education system. “This debate is something that should have occurred back in 2010 but it didn’t. Now we need to maintain our absolute control over our standards.”

This opposition has led supporters to scramble to devise a defense of the standards, which aren't mandated by the U.S. Department of Education but are supported by the Obama administration. The state education system calls them an important economic development tool and not a "hidden agenda" from overreaching federalists.

It has also created political headaches for Gov. Nathan Deal, who wasn't governor when the standards were adopted but has maintained his support of them. He tried to settle dissenters last month when he signed an order that blocks federal curriculum from being imposed in Georgia and bans collection of identifiable student data for the federal government.

But, echoing a common theme among the program’s supporters, he said Common Core is under attack partly because it is misunderstood.

“It simply is an effort to say if we’re going to be compared with students in other parts of the country, we should be teaching to the same standards of what we expect our students to know and be able to do,” he said. “I think that makes good sense and it makes the testing more meaningful.”

No amount of explanation has put out the Common Core fires that blaze still all over metro Atlanta.

School board members in Cobb County voted 4 to 3 in April not to purchase new math textbooks aligned with Common Core, a vote influenced partly by dozens of angry tea party members who say the textbooks were an effort to "dumb down" learning in Georgia. Now the board is considering a redesign of all the middle and high school math books to eliminate references to Common Core — a move that would cost taxpayers $2 million.

Fayette County's school board voted to spend $1.6 million to buy Common Core math books only after a heated debate that pitted teachers who supported the purchases against citizens who worried the program could lead to new restrictions on school local control.

And a bitter political fight is underway in Cherokee County, where school board member Kelly Marlow has invited a powerful state accrediting agency to investigate after several tiffs, including her unanswered request that the board appoint a committee to study Common Core standards.

“Our elected officials should be open to hearing citizens’ concerns over Common Core,” said Marlow, a tea party enthusiast. “People are concerned about the perceived federalization of our education system and they want local officials to have more of a say.”

Expect Common Core to be a recurring theme during next year's election. The four high-profile Republicans running for retiring U.S. Sen. Saxby Chambliss' seat have all called for its abolition, as have many of the candidates running for three U.S. House seats opening next year.

The same battles are playing out in at least eight other states, where education officials are trying to slow the implementation of the standards, repeal the program, or block it from extending to science or other subjects.

House Speaker David Ralston didn’t rule out legislation come January seeking to answer the critics. What’s still uncertain is what that legislation will look like.

“The problem with Common Core is there’s been some misinformation on it, there’s been some propaganda that’s not exactly accurate,” he said. “I want to see us separate all of that, strip it down and then have a good, frank discussion on whether this is something we need to do.”

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