Common Core curriculum standards spark political firestorm

In a speech in Chicago this month, Jeb Bush defended the Common Core while calling for more school-choice initiatives in states.
In a speech in Chicago this month, Jeb Bush defended the Common Core while calling for more school-choice initiatives in states.
Published Aug. 18, 2013

TALLAHASSEE — The new Common Core State Standards are more than just a road map for teachers and students.

They're a political football causing a rift among Republicans.

In Florida, conservative moms and tea party groups have mounted fierce opposition to the national standards, saying decisions about teaching and learning should be made by state governments and local school boards — not the federal government. Their efforts attracted significant attention this summer, thanks to well-attended rallies, social media blitzes and the support of Sen. Marco Rubio.

"Our parents are reaching out to every (state) legislator they know and urging them to hit the pause button on Common Core," said Laura Zorc, a Vero Beach mother and co-founder of Florida Parents Against Common Core.

Few observers think the pressure will make the Florida Legislature or the Board of Education reverse course on the standards, which kick in across all grade levels when school starts this week. The benchmarks still have broad support among Republican lawmakers and a tireless champion in former Gov. Jeb Bush.

But the backlash could be enough to prompt Florida's exit from a national consortium creating the tests to accompany the new standards. Observers like Frederick Hess of the conservative American Enterprise Institute say the standards would be virtually meaningless without a common measuring stick.

"If there is a disconnect between the standards and the assessments, we end up worse than where we began," Hess said, noting that there would be no way to compare student performance in Florida to performance in other states.

The Common Core standards outline what is expected of students at each grade level but do not include suggestions for books or how teachers should plan their lessons. The benchmarks, created by the National Governors Association and Council of Chief State School Officers, have been approved in 45 states and the District of Columbia.

The political fireworks are not unique to Florida. The debate in Indiana got so heated that lawmakers voted to put the brakes on the standards earlier this year. Michigan and Wisconsin are also grappling with similar proposals.

"In many states, implementation is already well under way, but there is this firestorm," said Maria Ferguson, executive director of the nonpartisan Center on Education Policy.

That wasn't always the case. When the initiative launched in 2009, lawmakers from both parties, teachers unions, parent groups and business associations supported it. They made the argument that national standards would raise the bar for students across the country and enable educators to compare student performance across state lines.

But fractures began forming this year, when the Obama administration ramped up its efforts to promote the new benchmarks.

The unions expressed concerns over how educators would be evaluated during the rollout and whether they would be adequately prepared. Critics on the right, meanwhile, identified the Common Core as an example of federal overreach and drew comparisons to Obamacare. They also took issue with federal money being tied to the standards.

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Other concerns surfaced about the quality of the standards themselves and how student data would be collected, distributed and protected.

When tea party groups like Florida Parents Against Common Core began mobilizing this summer, state education leaders braced for the political fallout.

"This wave is coming to kill Common Core," Board of Education member Kathleen Shanahan said in May.

Florida's push toward Common Core suffered a bruising setback this month when state Education Commissioner Tony Bennett resigned in the aftermath of a school grades controversy in his home state of Indiana. Bennett was among the most outspoken advocates of the standards and had been guiding the state Education Board through the firestorm.

Bush has been doing everything in his power to promote the Common Core standards through his two education foundations. He made a speech defending the benchmarks this month at a conference in Chicago of the American Legislative Exchange Council, a policy resource for many Republican lawmakers.

It seems to be helping. Interim Florida Education Commissioner Pam Stewart has said she has no plans to abandon the national benchmarks.

Republican state lawmakers are holding firm too.

Last month, state Sen. John Thrasher, R-St. Augustine, and four former chairs of the Republican Party of Florida sent an email seeking to clarify "misinformation" that had circulated among conservatives and garner support for the standards.

"There are good conservatives on both sides of this issue," they wrote. "Questioning the integrity of anyone involved on either side of this debate does not do our party or this issue any favors. We implore our fellow Republicans to judge the Common Core State Standards by what they are: academic standards, not curriculum and not a national mandate."

Senate President Don Gaetz, R-Niceville, said he welcomed debate on the Common Core but remained committed to the national standards.

House Speaker Will Weatherford, R-Wesley Chapel, said he had no qualms with the benchmarks either.

When asked why the issue had become so controversial, Gaetz blamed politics.

"Unfortunately, the Obama administration has tried to hijack the Common Core issue," the former school superintendent said.

The two leaders, however, have reservations about a key part of Florida's Common Core plan: the tests.

Florida is a member of the Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers, a consortium of states working to create new exams to test the Common Core Standards. Gaetz and Weatherford recently suggested Florida leave the consortium and craft its own plan for measuring student achievement, which could include an entirely new set of student assessments.

Gaetz has said the proposal was not the product of political pressure. He and Weatherford want to leave PARCC because the consortium has not released its final student data security policies and because school systems may not have the technology needed to administer the exams, he said.

Observers think Florida is likely to follow Georgia, Indiana and Oklahoma and withdraw from the consortium.

Zorc, of Florida Parents Against Common Core, said the move would be telling. "Legislators are starting to listen," she said.

Kathleen McGrory can be reached at