Common Core coloring the superintendent’s race

The question of whether Georgia should keep the Common Core academic standards has split the field of Republicans running for state school superintendent.

Indeed, those national standards — reviled by tea party activists as a federal intrusion into state control over public education and backed by education and business groups as a necessary improvement – is the most incendiary topic on the campaign trail.

Some GOP candidates have opposed the new standards, claiming they are weaker than the ones used in Georgia previously. Others have offered support for Common Core, saying it would be disruptive to change standards that have already been put in place.

What happens in the superintendent’s race will go a long way toward determining if Georgia sticks with Common Core. As Georgia determines whether and how to align new standardized tests to Common Core, the next superintendent — who oversees the staff at the state Department of Education — could toss a wrench into that machinery.

“There certainly could be rules and regulations that could be put in place and an attempt to convince state legislators to pull the state out,” said Stephen Dolinger, president of the Georgia Partnership for Excellence in Education, a policy group that backs the standards. The superintendent “could be a key player, and that would be a concern.”

The next superintendent could not single-handedly pull Georgia out of Common Core, which the state adopted in 2010. A pullout would require action by the state Board of Education, whose members are appointed by the governor and who typically support recommendations from the superintendent.

With debate on Common Core heating up last year and earlier this year, tea party activists packed local school board meetings and showed up en masse at the Capitol to urge elected officials to move away from the new standards.

Gov. Nathan Deal, who has supported Common Core but could use the support of tea party activists in his own GOP primary, ordered the state board to review whether the standards are right for Georgia.

That review seemed to douse the political fire, but it flared again during the legislative session with a bill pushed by Sen. William Ligon, R-Brunswick. Under Ligon’s proposal, the state would have been able to retain Common Core, but would have been barred from offering a standardized test tied to any set of national standards.

Ligon’s legislation failed – but only after a spirited push from Common Core opponents.

Those opponents could have out-sized importance in the May 20 primary, where only the most passionate and politically attuned voters are expected to cast ballots.

No candidate reflects the potency of Common Core better than T. Fitz Johnson, a Republican who has raised far more money than anyone else in the race.

Johnson doesn’t blast away at Common Core like some of his fellow Republicans. He doesn’t wrap his arms around the standards, either. He supports the review Deal ordered.

“Where we need to fix the current curriculum, we should fix it,” he said, “but to throw out the entire curriculum without a set alternative would be irresponsible.”

Common Core isn’t actually a curriculum; it’s a set of standards, a series of bars students in Georgia and across the country are expected to clear. However, Georgia’s curriculum – what is actually taught in classrooms – has been altered to make sure students can meet the new standards. And that’s a big problem for many.

Five of the nine Republicans running for superintendent oppose Common Core.

“What Common Core represents is another burdensome bureaucracy that creates one-size fits-all mandates on the classroom,” said Nancy Jester, a former DeKalb County School Board member. “Common Core will not drive improved achievement in Georgia.”

Another Republican, Ashley Bell, said, “Georgia has a common core of values and expectations that is far higher than any standards dreamed up in Washington, D.C.”

Common Core didn’t actually originate in Washington. It started with a push from the National Governor’s Association. Former Georgia Gov. Sonny Perdue was a strong early backer of the new standards. The Obama administration and the U.S. Department of Education have encouraged states to adopt the standards, while some conservatives have pounced on them as poorly-written, weak and intrusive.

A 10-second video clip of Johnson surfaced on YouTube, with the candidate saying: “We’ve spent a lot of money on Common Core. To take it and just dump it out, that’s probably not going to happen. We know that.”

That could get Johnson in hot water with tea party activists who oppose Common Core, which could help Johnson’s opponents.

Bell’s picture and name appeared under the Johnson video clip in the spot usually reserved for those who posted it. But Bell’s campaign has said it did not post the video, which has apparently been removed.

Common Core does not have the political potency among Democrats that it does among Republicans. That’s largely because many Democrats and their allies in public education back the new standards. Tea party activists have also tended to back Republican candidates, making them a more important constituency to the GOP.

Alisha Thomas Morgan and Valarie Wilson, who have raised the most money among Democrats in the superintendent’s race, both support Common Core.

“This is a critical time for education in Georgia, and our state has made the right step in adopting the more rigorous Common Core state standards,” Morgan said.

Common Core does have its supporters among Republicans in the superintendent’s race. And they have extensive track records in public education.

Allen Bowles Fort, superintendent of schools in Quitman County, said he accepts the state’s adherence to Common Core. “The issue of Common Core must be an education issue, worked out by educators, not a political football to cause rancor and discord,” he said.

Kira Willis, a graduation coach in Fulton County, said Georgia’s teachers have already begun to work under Common Core, “and we should let them finish what they have started.”

And Mike Buck, the chief academic officer at the state Department of Education, said he is “strongly supportive of our current educational standards for many reasons.”

Buck, who also serves at the acting chief of staff to the current superintendent, John Barge, noted support for the standards from those in the business, military and education communities.

“If we stay the course and implement the standards with fidelity, we will see improved outcomes for our students,” he said.

By Wayne Washington
The Atlanta Journal-Constitution

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