New national academic standards stoke new fears

With Georgia students taking their first tests tied to a “Common Core” of national academic standards in English and math, a number of conservatives want the state to reconsider its decision to adhere to those standards.

Looking to make sure Georgia students are on par with their counterparts across the country, political and education officials here decided in 2010 to embrace the new standards, which are based, in part, on standards the state had already moved toward. Some have criticized the new standards as a sort of nationalization of public education that steps on state prerogatives, and they say they fear it will lead to curriculum changes driven by the federal government.

The fight over the standards that some critics liken to President Barack Obama’s sweeping health care initiative, calling it “ObamaCore,” recently led the Cobb County School Board to reject new math textbooks for the district’s students.

Frustration with the new standards covers several areas, including: the standards themselves, which some believe are confusing; the fact that there was no public vote taken to impose them; and worries that changing the state’s curriculum so students can meet the standards will be costly. Opponents also dislike the fact that Georgia has limited flexibility to change the standards.

“The more people learn across the state about this, the more they dislike it and believe Georgia should not go into this,” said state Sen. William Ligon, R-Brunswick, who says he will push to pass legislation to pull Georgia out of the Common Core.

It isn’t necessarily a fight along ideological lines. Georgia Schools Superintendent John Barge and Gov. Nathan Deal, both conservative Republicans, back the Common Core.

At a monthly gathering of the Cobb County Republican Party in Marietta Saturday, Barge said the Common Core and the Georgia Performance Standards are essentially the same.

Barge said, however, that he’s concerned the state Department of Education’s flexibility to make adjustments to the standards as needed will be severely limited if it doesn’t have the authority to design its own assessments.

“Without the flexibility in the assessment piece, we will be handcuffed in our ability to make the changes in the curriculum we think need to be made,” Barge said.

Georgia is one of 45 states, along with the District of Columbia and a trio of U.S. territories, that have agreed to adhere to a national set of standards in English and math. The standards don’t dictate what must be taught, but students will, eventually, be expected to master material that meets national standards.

State and federal education officials are still working on a national test that would replace statewide assessments like Georgia’s Criterion-Referenced Competency Test.

Supporters say the Common Core will improve education in the U.S. by making sure that students across an increasingly mobile country can meet the same academic standards.

Opposition flared during a recent meeting at the Cobb County School Board, which refused to purchase new math textbooks some board members argued were being forced upon them by the federal government.

Several Cobb residents spoke out against the textbooks and against the Common Core, which they said was sprung on them without their input.

“Like many parents, my first introduction to these dramatic changes was at our school’s open house,” Cobb parent Tammy Slaton told board members. “Many were disturbed not only by the math curriculum, but by the fact that we were being presented with this information after the change had been made.”

Slaton and other parents said their experience with the Common Core has, so far, been unpleasant.

“Basic math is now so complicated and confusing, the school needs to send home instruction sheets for parents to help our second-graders,” Slaton said. “It’s absurd.”

Barge said Saturday that some teachers have raised concerns algebra standards that appeared in the eighth grade under the previous curriculum have been pushed to the ninth grade.

Beyond that, he said, his biggest concern is what it will cost the department to perform student assessments.

“It’s astronomically expensive,” he said. “My assessment budget for k-12 education for the entire state is $ 25 million a year. The projected cost is more than double that amount.”

Barge also said there has been some confusion that the state has eliminated teaching cursive writing.

“We did not,” he said. “Whether local districts are teaching it is another question.”

Although Georgia education officials were involved in crafting the standards, opponents still complain that they will lead to curriculum changes that are driven by the federal government.

Earlier this year, Ligon introduced a bill to pull Georgia out of the Common Core. The bill was introduced late in the session and did not pass, but Ligon said he will continue to fight for its passage. State Department of Education officials believe at least some of the state’s Race to the Top funds from the federal government could be threatened if Georgia pulls out of the Common Core.

Unhappiness with the Common Core isn’t limited to Georgia. A handful of states have legislation that would take them out of it.

Last month, the Republican National Committee passed a resolution criticizing the Common Core as an “inappropriate overreach to standardize and control the education of our children.”

Opponents have argued that the standards fail to account for differences in various states. To make that point, Tanya Ditty, Georgia director of Concerned Women for America, used the example of the word “subway.” That’s a sandwich shop in some parts of the country, she said, and a mode of transportation in others.

“Students in Georgia are different from students in South Dakota,” said Ditty, whose group has mobilized opposition to the Common Core.

Ditty and others not only object to the standards, they have criticized the methods the federal government used to encourage states to embrace them.

In the pursuit of hundreds of millions of dollars in federal Race to the Top education grants, states’ applications were enhanced if they agreed to adhere to the standards. Common Core opponents say states in financial difficulty felt compelled to pursue the grant money and accept the standards.

Supporters say such characterizations are not credible and that the National Governors Association, comprised of Republicans and Democrats, oversaw the writing of the standards. No state was forced to sign on, they say, as evidenced by the fact that several have not embraced the standards.

“We had complete flexibility,” said Matt Cardoza, spokesman for the state Department of Education.

Opposition to the Common Core has served as a rallying point for some conservatives, but not all are bashing it.

At a bill signing in Marietta last week, Deal disagreed with the contention that the Common Core was forced upon states.

“I think the misconception is that this was federally imposed on the state of Georgia and on the other states,” the governor said. “The Common Core was arrived at by the efforts of states. The federal government did not mandate it. They did not control it, and they did not dictate its content.”

Such assertions, however, don’t mollify Common Core critics.

Ligon said he’s going to press the case against the Common Core. And Ditty, noting legislative efforts in other states to reconsider adherence to the Common Core, said it can still be resisted.

“There is a groundswell of movement,” she said. “We believe that we’ve got the momentum on our side.”

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Staff writer Gracie Bonds Staples contributed to this article.