By Andrew Seidman
Gov. Christie on Thursday disavowed the controversial Common Core education standards he once supported and directed his education commissioner to consider developing New Jersey-specific goals.
Christie, a Republican considering running for president in 2016, had warned for months that he had "grave" concerns about the standards, which conservatives denounce as federal encroachment on the classroom.
"We have to reject federal control of New Jersey's education," Christie told an audience of about 150 at Burlington County College.
"We need to return it to the parents and students who ultimately have the most at stake, and to the teachers who will help make that walk across that stage," Christie said. "We need to take it out of the cubicles of Washington, D.C., where it's been placed by this administration. And we need to return it to the neighborhoods of New Jersey."
Education Commissioner David Hespe will form a group of parents and teachers to consider and potentially establish new standards by the end of the year. Christie said communities had not bought into Common Core because they were not involved in developing the standards.
Christie's remarks amount to a significant about-face.
In July 2013, Christie said he supported the standards, despite opposition among some Republicans in Washington, and declared at an education conference in Las Vegas that he and other governors were "leading the change" in support of Common Core.
But Common Core has become increasingly unpopular among conservatives. They say the Obama administration has tied waivers and federal funding to adoption of the standards.
Scrapping the standards could make Christie more popular with the GOP base, which he must court if he is to win the Republican presidential nomination in 2016.
Christie's new position also distinguishes him from former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush, a likely rival for the nomination and a supporter of Common Core. The vast majority of other declared and likely Republican presidential candidates oppose the standards.
Christie has said he will decide next month whether to enter the race. Some states, such as Indiana and Oklahoma, have dropped the standards. Oklahoma subsequently lost its waiver from a federal education law when the Obama administration rejected the state's new standards. Federal law requires all states receiving Title I education funding to have high academic standards.
Starting in 2010, 45 states, including New Jersey and Pennsylvania, and the District of Columbia adopted the standards, which were developed by the National Governors Association and education experts.
Before he left office in January, Pennsylvania Gov. Tom Corbett, a Republican, backed off from support of Common Core standards. Gov. Wolf, a Democrat, spoke out against Common Core during his gubernatorial campaign. His office did not reply to a request for comment Thursday.
The standards establish a set of grade-specific goals in English and math for students in kindergarten through 12th grade. The standards do not set curriculum. New Jersey joined a testing consortium, known as the Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers (PARCC), that developed standardized tests aligned with Common Core.
Christie on Thursday maintained his support for PARCC, even as some teachers, students, and parents have raised concerns about emphasizing standardized testing. Some have criticized PARCC as developmentally inappropriate and confusing.
"We must continue to review and improve that test based on results, not based upon fear and rumor and speculation," Christie said. "I'm not going to permit New Jersey to risk losing vital federal education funds because some would prefer to let the perfect get in the way of the good."
Wendell Steinhauer, president of the New Jersey Education Association, the state's largest teachers' union, told reporters it made no sense to continue with PARCC, given that the test is aligned with Common Core. Even as Christie rejected Common Core, he said New Jersey needed to develop rigorous standards to prepare students for college and the workforce.
Across the Garden State's community colleges, 60 percent to 82 percent of students need remedial education before they "can even begin to tackle college-level work," Christie said. "Equally unsettling," he said, was that fewer than 50 percent of students at four-year universities graduate within six years.
"It's not enough to attend college," Christie said. "We want students who go to college to actually graduate from college, and graduate in a reasonable period of time."
Lawrence A. Nespoli, president of the New Jersey Council of County Colleges, which represents the state's 19 community colleges, praised Christie's approach.
"As to Common Core, his larger point was spot-on. It's [that] we need high standards," Nespoli said. "And whether it's the Common Core or he's now calling for New Jersey colleges and career readiness standards, the larger point is he doubled down on saying we need standards."
Inquirer staff writer Jonathan Lai contributed to this article.
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