With Common Core at stake, the Georgia Chamber steps in

By Jim Galloway
The Atlanta Journal-Constitution

Business types don’t always want to be seen consorting with office-seekers. They prefer to assess their friends and foes in private, which presumably allows plainer talk.

So the invitation from the Georgia Chamber to bear witness was a welcome surprise. And the topic itself was just as unprecedented – a first vetting of candidates for state school superintendent. Never before has the state’s premier business organization dipped into the contest. Not like this.

Then again, never before has the Chamber seen one of its major initiatives – an education push it considered both vital and uncontroversial — trashed so thoroughly by elements of Georgia’s ruling party.

The Georgia Chamber is the state’s most powerful proponent of Common Core, the multi-state initiative to set uniform, nationwide education standards in math and English for k-12 public school students.

Business is not a disinterested party: With Georgia ranking near the bottom in terms of test scores and graduation rates, employers now find it difficult to put their hands on qualified workers. Economic development suffers.

Sonny Perdue — the first Repubican in modern Georgia history — was a midwife to Common Core’s birth. Nonetheless, within the last year, the effort has been denounced by the most conservative elements of the Republican party as an effort to federalize education in the U.S.

Socialistic. Communistic. One-worldish. You name it – the adjective has been applied within tea party circles.

The Chamber put its position in writing, in a brief sent to eight invited candidates for school superintendent – one Democrat and seven Republicans. (More candidates are anticipated.)

To most of the GOP candidates, the warning didn’t matter. ”It’s centralization. Ask the Soviets how that worked out,” Nancy Jester, a former DeKalb County school board member said.

She went on to chide the business group for its poor philosophy when it came to Common Core. “Centralization is not a method that leads to success. The Chamber knows that. We know what drives success. That’s competition,” she said.

Mary Kay Bacallao, a professor of math and science education at Mercer University and a member of the Fayette County school board, has built her campaign around opposition to Common Core.

Drew Evangelista, an AT&T education learning specialist from Fulton County, declared it “fundamentally broken.” Richard Woods, a school administrator from Tifton, declared Common Core would lead us “down a path that does not promote student learning.”

Fitz Johnson of Cobb County once ran a family-owned defense contract company, and has raised more campaign cash than all of the other candidates combined – $265,000 when last reported. He finessed the question.

“Is there middle ground? I’m for rigorous standards here in the state of Georgia. And I’m for local control,” he said. But Johnson said he would implement whatever curriculum the state Board of Education approved.

Kara Willis, a Roswell Republican who ran for school superintendent in 2010 as a Libertarian, was slightly more direct. “I don’t have a problem with standards. I like them,” she said.

But the only candidate to give the Chamber a full-throated endorsement was state Rep. Alisha Thomas Morgan of Austell, the lone Democrat. “I absolutely support Common Core,” she said. “I’m proud of the product.”

There was one more candidate in the mix – Matt Shultz, a three-term Republican member of the Bartow County school board. He turned out to be the afternoon’s truth-teller.

It really didn’t matter what he thought of Common Core, Shultz said. In Republican circles, it’s now radioactive. He addressed the business leaders in a language they could understand. “If Common Core were a brand and I were a product manager, it would be dead on arrival. We have lost the marketing war on Common Core,” Shultz said. “That’s just a fact.”

Common Core will have to be pulled off the shelf, repackaged, and called something else, he implied. We suggest something with an Earl Gray lilt, for tea party palates. Call it “Sovereign Standards” – trademark applied for.

After the event, Chris Clark, president and CEO of the Georgia Chamber, all but conceded that a re-branding was in order.

“They all found a hole to shoot in Common Core, and that’s fine,” Clark said. “The bottom line is, are you going to support higher standards, or are you going to roll it back? We don’t want the candidates that are going to roll it back.”

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