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Like Indiana, Oklahoma Eyes an Exit (Sort of) from Common Core

Oklahoma may join Indiana and become the second state to go back on Common Core. But critics of the state education standards question how much state lawmakers are actually reversing.

Oklahoma lawmakers are within sight of passing a bill that formally exits the state from the Common Core State Standards but leaves officials free to adopt portions of them as they rewrite the state’s education benchmarks. 

The move would follow similar legislation in Indiana, an early adopter of the standards that have amassed enemies on both the left and right. But in Indiana the legislature had already interrupted implementation of Common Core, and state education officials have been writing alternative benchmarks in ways that retain significant portions of Common Core. That’s prompted opponents of the standards to criticize the legislative maneuvering as an effort at appeasement, while legislators themselves argue they’re allowing for a review that ends with the best possible benchmarks—whether those include at least portions of Common Core or not.   

The Common Core State Standards spell out what K-12 students should be able to do and know in math and English each year. They were developed in 2010 by the National Governors Association and Council of Chief State School Officers to raise expectations uniformly across the U.S. They courted little controversy when 45 states quickly adopted them, in part to compete for federal grants that required more challenging benchmarks. 

But they’re generating growing criticism from conservatives who consider them an intrusion on state independence and liberals who associate them with the movement to tightly measure students and teachers by test scores. Some critics also say the standards themselves aren’t objectively better. Many others say the process of aligning curricula and assessments with the standards will be a costly giveaway to private companies. 

Bills repealing Common Core flooded statehouses last year and continue this year, but they’ve been mostly unsuccessful until Indiana. Even with the repeal, though, a report from Indiana’s own Center for Education and Career Innovation found 93 percent of rewritten standards in the state’s secondary English curriculum were either verbatim or edited Common Core standards. K-5 standards in English were 47 percent from the Common Core. The latest draft of those Indiana standards comes up for a vote at the end of the month.

It remains to be seen whether the new benchmarks will meet the federal government's "college-and-career-ready" standard, which has been a requirement of Race to the Top grant funding and waivers from No Child Left Behind.   

Oklahoma’s bill has passed both chambers of the legislature and is now returning to the House, where lawmakers need to approve changes before sending the bill to Gov. Mary Fallin. The bill directs the state board of education to rewrite standards for legislative approval by August of 2015. The goal is to provide the best standards possible, whether that includes a total rewrite, borrowing from other states or retaining some Common Core, said Jason Nelson, a Republican legislator and one of the bill’s sponsors.

“If it was a good idea before, it’s going to still be a good idea,” he said. “People have a hard time saying what specifically do they not like about the standards, so let’s do that within the state.”

The bill places Fallin in a difficult position. As chairperson of the National Governors Association, she heads an organization that served as a chief architect of Common Core, and she’s supported the standards in the past. The statement she’s released on the bill doesn’t clearly say whether she’ll veto the bill, and her staff didn’t return a request for clarification. 

“I support passing legislation that increases classroom rigor and accountability while guaranteeing that Oklahoma public education is protected from federal interference,” she said in a statement. “While House Bill 3399 is still a work in progress, my hope is that it will accomplish these goals and ultimately be signed into law.”

Fallin’s public statement illustrates the pressure governors are feeling to avoid running afoul of the federal government and voters, said Sandra Stotsky, a curriculum expert and professor who’s been asked to advise numerous states, including Indiana. Other states, such as Arizona, have simply stopped calling the standards Common Core. In the ongoing budget fight there, lawmakers ultimately relented to demands from Gov. Jan Brewer for funding to implement assessments aligned to Common Core, but the legislation itself lists the spending as "testing," avoiding direct references to Common Core. “They’re all trying to figure out how to do end-runs,” Stotsky said. “They want to retain the control and get money from the federal government while talking about local control.” 

Chris covers health care for GOVERNING. An Ohio native with an interest in education, he set out for New Orleans with Teach For America after finishing a degree at Ohio University’s E.W. Scripps School of Journalism. He later covered government and politics at the Savannah Morning News and its South Carolina paper. He most recently covered North Carolina’s 2013 legislative session for the Associated Press.
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