After a spring and summer of growing public discontent over the Common Core State Standards and their effect, the General Assembly decided it was finally time to study the issue. In late summer, legislative leaders named a 16-member Legislative Research Commission Common Core Study Committee. Sen. Dan Soucek, a Watauga Republican, and Rep. Bryan Holloway, a Rockingham Republican, will co-chair the committee.
What took them so long? The N.C. State Board of Education adopted Common Core math and English standards in June 2010, primarily as a way to make the state eligible for a $400 million Race-to-the-Top grant from Washington. The grant was part of the Obama administration’s $4.3 billion plan to offer incentives to states to adopt Common Core standards. The ploy worked. Forty-six states, including North Carolina, adopted the standards.
What wasn’t part of the plan was the backlash against Common Core. Efforts to repeal or halt Common Core standards are now being considered in about a dozen states, including North Carolina. A recent poll in New York state found 49 percent of respondents said they were not confident that implementing the standards would help prepare students for college or careers. A fall 2013 Phi Delta Kappa and Gallup poll found 62 percent of Americans had never heard about the new academic standards.
Clearly there is a lot of educating to do. The 12 Republicans and four Democrats on the committee will have their hands full. For the past several months, legislators have been hearing much from angry constituents whose children are frustrated by the new math or informational texts.
The blowback has caught most legislators off guard. Common Core has never been debated by the General Assembly. Because few legislators are familiar with the issue, the LRC Study Committee should provide legislators a crash course in Common Core.
What will the committee review? Enabling legislation says the committee “shall comprehensively study both current and suggested curriculum standards in K-12 education in the state.” The committee will specifically focus “on the question of cost and benefits of any existing or proposed curriculum standards and whether these standards will directly and positively affect educational outcomes in the state.”
What questions need to be addressed? The committee would do well to review the letter Lt. Gov. Dan Forest sent to Superintendent of Public Instruction June Atkinson in July. Forest has taken the lead in asking pertinent questions on how the standards were developed, on their costs and on what steps North Carolina is taking to ensure that the problems occurring in states like Kentucky and New York won’t occur here. Unfortunately, the response Forest received from 67 probing questions was nothing more than a data dump. The confusion is telling.
Then you must consider the politics. Under the committee rules, House Speaker Thom Tillis and Senate President Pro Tem Phil Berger appoint members to the LRC Common Core Study Committee. Tillis is seeking the Republican Senate nomination to face Kay Hagan in November. The conventional wisdom says Tillis wants a nice, quiet spring free of citizen rebellions, allowing him to campaign freely. Berger passed significant education reforms the last two years, patterned largely after Jeb Bush’s efforts in Florida. The former Florida governor has praised Berger’s efforts for advancing “bold, student-centered measures” to improve education in the state.
It’s hard to ignore Bush’s influence on North Carolina education reform efforts. It’s also hard to ignore that Jeb Bush is the foremost Republican spokesman for Common Core in the nation. Both political realities may lead to a tightly scripted series of hearings on Common Core that may also serve to dampen the hopes of a growing number of Common Core critics.
But let’s not get too far down the road. Let the process play out. Let the committee answer important questions. And let’s learn from what is happening and not happening in North Carolina. Many will be watching.
Bob Luebke is senior policy analyst with the Civitas Institute in Raleigh.