Brewing over Common Core crosses political spectrum


Published: Thursday, August 22, 2013 at 7:09 p.m.
Last Modified: Thursday, August 22, 2013 at 7:09 p.m.

TALLAHASSEE — As Florida school leaders prepare for a three-day summit in Clearwater next week, a state political fight is emerging over new education standards that have oddly allied former Gov. Jeb Bush with President Barack Obama.

Facts

At a Glance: Common Core

Common Core is a new national education standard that outlines academic expectations for students at each grade level. It sets benchmarks for learning in math, English and language arts. Developed by the National Governors Association and Council of Chief State School Officers the standards have been approved in 45 states and in the District of Columbia.
Common Core has been adopted in Florida and is scheduled to be fully implemented in public schools beginning next fall in the 2014-15 academic year.
A controversy has erupted as conservative groups, including tea party activists, have slammed the standards as a move toward a larger federal role in public education. They are calling for states to reject the standards, with Indiana recently becoming one of the first states to delay its implementation of the Common Core. Florida leaders have supported the Common Core, which has been adopted by the Legislature and the state Board of Education. Former Gov. Jeb Bush is an outspoken advocate.

At issue are Common Core education standards scheduled to be fully implemented in Florida public schools next fall.

The Obama administration and Bush, who created an education foundation after he left office in 2006, support the Common Core standards, which they say will create more rigorous academic expectations for students. Florida is one of 45 states on a path to adopt the standards for math and language, and most state leaders continue to support the effort.

Opponents, including U.S. Sen. Marco Rubio, tea party activists and other conservative political groups, have criticized the push for national standards, saying those decisions should be left to the states. They have raised questions about the cost of the new standards and their effectiveness.

So far, Gov. Rick Scott, who faces re-election next year, has sidestepped the issue. However, Scott called the three-day education summit, which begins Monday at a St. Petersburg College facility, to "openly discuss ideas and options" for improving Florida schools.

Education standards as well as testing, school grades and teacher evaluations will be part of the agenda.

"Florida's education accountability system has become a national model, but we are at a critical point in our history," Scott said in statement. "Our students need and deserve a quality education that emphasizes critical thinking and analysis. Our teachers and schools need our support as we continue to compete nationally and globally in preparing students for success in college, career and in life."

The conference will be headed by interim Education Commissioner Pam Stewart, who recently replaced Tony Bennett. Bennett resigned following publicity about a school grading controversy in Indiana, where he was the former education commissioner.

The departure of Bennett, who was a strong Common Core supporter, and the call by legislative leaders for Florida to leave a national testing consortium linked to Common Core have heightened the debate over the education standards.

Laura Zorc, a Vero Beach mother and cofounder of Florida Parents Against Common Core, has been invited to the summit. She will urge state officials and lawmakers to delay using Common Core standards until there is more evaluation.

"We're not against standards at all," Zorc said. "But these are not the standards we want taught to our kids."

Zorc questioned why the state is abandoning its existing standards, which she says can be as effective or more effective than Common Core measures. She has also raised issues about the cost of implementing the new standards and whether Florida schools have the technology to carry out the computerized testing.

"Why don't we tweak what we have?" she asked.

She said her group has received commitments from several lawmakers to file legislation in the 2014 session to delay the implementation of Common Core standards.

Another invitee to the summit is Patricia Levesque, the CEO of the Foundation for Excellence in Education, Bush's education think-tank. Bush, who led the creation of the A-F school grading system in Florida while he was governor, has been an outspoken proponent of Common Core standards.

Despite sharp criticism from conservative groups and commentators, Bush has appeared in a number of forums in recent months defending Common Core, which he said opponents have tried to politicize by linking it to Obama. Bush said the standards do not represent a national curriculum but are demanding benchmarks that will allow the states to develop their own academic plans on how to reach them.

"There are critics of Common Core standards from both ends of the ideological spectrum," Bush told the conservative-leaning American Legislative Exchange Council earlier this month. "I respect those who don't share my views. What I can't accept are the dumbed down standards and expectations that exist in almost all of our schools today."

While the debate over Common Core has split conservatives, Florida's teachers continue to question the state's increasing reliance on testing to evaluate schools and teachers.

"Instead of being used as they were designed, as diagnostic tools to help identify areas students need to improve, standardized testing in Florida is being misused to keep students from moving to a higher grade, to assess schools and districts on a letter-grade system and now to evaluate teachers using a system that doesn't even align teachers to the students they teach or the subjects they teach," said Mark Pudlow, a spokesman for the Florida Education Association, which has also been invited to next week's summit.

Pudlow said if new testing linked to Common Core standards "continues these misuses, they're likely to be as chaotic and unproductive as the system we've been stumbling with for the past 15 years."

"These tests aren't helping students," he said.

While Florida remains on a path to begin using Common Core standards next year, the question is open over what type of testing the state will use to make sure students are meeting those benchmarks.

Earlier this summer, Senate President Don Gaetz, R-Niceville, and House Speaker Will Weatherford, R-Wesley Chapel, called on the state to abandon the Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers, or PARCC, a consortium of states that is developing testing for Common Core.

"We cannot jeopardize 15 years of education accountability reform by relying on PARCC to define a fundamental component of our accountability system," Gaetz and Weatherford said in their joint statement.

But if the state leaves PARCC and keeps Common Core standards, it will have to develop its own tests. And it will raise new issues about cost, timing and effectiveness.

In welcoming the governor's education summit next week, the House and Senate leaders did not offer any insight into the direction they think the state should move.

"I commend Gov. Scott for convening this education summit and taking a strong leadership role on the future of educational standards, assessment, school grades and teacher accountability in Florida," Weatherford said.

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