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Legislators Worry About Revival of Common Core

Superintendent grilled at committee meeting about implications of legislation signed in December by President Obama

Members of a state legislative panel are concerned that a new federal education law could keep in place controversial Common Core educational standards that dictate to states how students are taught and what they must learn.

Lawmakers quizzed state Superintendent of Public Instruction June Atkinson on Tuesday during a meeting of the Joint Legislative Education Oversight Committee about the Every Student Succeeds Act, signed into law in December by President Obama.

“I think there is an ongoing concern that there is an effort, perhaps, starting at the federal level to kind of rebrand [Common Core], or continue it,” despite heavy public opposition, said Rep. Bert Jones, R-Rockingham.

The new 1,059-page law, scheduled to take effect in the 2017-18 school year, is an update of the former Elementary and Secondary Education Act, also known as the No Child Left Behind Act.

The ESSA law provides “tremendous flexibility to the state while maintaining some of the requirements of No Child Left Behind,” Atkinson said.

The U.S. Department of Education has not released final regulations, so writing specific provisions in the state’s plan is difficult. The plan, which must align with the federal law, is scheduled for submission in December.

The law “severely curtails the authority of the U.S. secretary of education” in mandating testing policies, said Lou Fabrizio, director of the Department of Public Instruction’s Division of Data, Research, and Federal Policy.

Teacher evaluations also are “one of the biggest changes,” Fabrizio said. “It returns that authority of teacher evaluations back to the states.”

Rep. Larry Pittman, R-Cabarrus, initiated the Common Core discussion.

“In spite of the disappointing performance at the end of the [Academic Standards Review Commission] and their recommendations, there still might be a chance — I’ll be working on it — to get rid of Common Core,” Pittman said.

That review commission in October rejected the recommendations of a 15-month-long study, leaving Common Core standards in place.

“So if we get rid of the Common Core, and there’s so much testing stuff tied to it, how does that affect the state making decisions?” Pittman asked.

DPI has gotten feedback from teachers, universities, and community colleges, “and we will be presenting to the State Board of Education a plan for the revision of standards,” Atkinson said.

“As a part of that process we are reviewing standards from other states, we have comparisons of the differences and similarities of the states,” she said.

She warned committee members that when standards are changed, “that also requires changing tests, that also requires changing textbooks, that also requires a massive undertaking of doing professional development for at least 50,000 teachers in our state.”

State Rep. Bert Jones, R-Rockingham, asked Atkinson for a clarification.

“You are referring of course to Common Core standards, is that fair to say? You never spoke about Common Core in particular,” Jones said.

Atkinson said she was referring to the Standard Course of Study as required by the General Assembly, which covers mathematics, English/language arts, social studies, healthful living, world languages, and career technical education.

When pressed by Jones, she agreed that Common Core standards apply to the English/language arts and mathematics courses.

Jones said some critics have argued that the new law “heavily incentivizes states to maintain the Common Core state standards.”

The law requires states to demonstrate “they have adopted standards that are aligned to the same definition of college and career standards used to force states into adopting Common Core under NCLB waivers,” Jones said. North Carolina is one of eight states receiving waivers.

Atkinson said there are no incentives in the legislation, which “makes it emphatic that the federal government cannot dictate to states what standards are adopted.”

The General Assembly required DPI to align its standards with what is required for students to succeed at the university or community college level, she said.

“I am sure that there will be people across North Carolina who will say that that is a camouflage for the federal government to incentivize us,” Atkinson said. “We get the same amount of money, based on formula, regardless of the standards that this state has in place.”