Opinion - Why Common Core's collapse hurts Georgia's students

Misguided right-wing attacks against the state's education standards are no longer just a GOP problem

Georgia has long resided at the lower end of school rankings.

Over the past decade, state leaders have worked toward improving those dismal results. In 2004, they started the process with an extensive overhaul that included updates to its K-12 curriculum. The changes were designed to raise standards, improve school rankings, and place the state's curriculum among the top 10 in the nation.

Around that time, many U.S. governors decided to adopt voluntary benchmarks called "Common Core" standards. They were designed so that individual schools would know their level of education was as good as other schools throughout the nation. States made the standards optional to avoid additional federal intrusion on an issue widely viewed as a state and local one.

Georgia's curriculum was used as a model for the new standards and the benchmarks were accepted in 2010 with little fanfare. Little would change, so there wasn't much cause for excitement. The Georgia Public Policy Foundation found that 81 percent of the state's existing language standards and 90 percent of its math standards were a part of Common Core.

But the opposition toward Common Core has swelled this year as some movement conservatives decided to wage war against the national standards. Glenn Beck appears to have originated the hard right's stance by labeling Common Core as an indoctrination "with extreme leftist ideology." The message spread, often through different social media networks, and contained misinformation and incomplete facts rather than objective analysis or critique.

The controversy caught Georgia's political leadership somewhat off guard. After all, the standards adopted three years ago were based on what they had successfully implemented here. But by the time Gov. Nathan Deal voiced his support, Common Core's critics didn't want to hear it.

State School Superintendent John Barge — who recently had gone on record supporting Common Core — was greeted at Cobb County's GOP breakfast meeting last May by North Georgia activists. Opponents warned him against the evils of this sleeping monster. During his own speech, Barge wavered in his message to the hostile crowd. He voiced his support, coasted through a discussion about the standards' downsides, and finally asked attendees to contact their state school board members and legislators if they wanted to get rid of Common Core.

Several weeks later, State GOP Convention attendees tried, and failed, to pass an anti-Common Core resolution due to the loss of a quorum. But grassroots activists remained unbowed. Eventually, the State Committee of the GOP passed the resolution against Common Core that previously failed to pass at the Convention.

Barge would also adopt the newfound opposition, which primarily centered on the standardized test that would measure Common Core's standards. The flexibility states received from volunteer benchmarks, he argued, would be lost if a uniform test was used. In addition, he said the test would have cost $27 million — more than Georgia's entire assessment budget Hardly any public discussion took place over what the state would receive in return for this investment.

The tests would have been administered using computers, minimizing the chances for widespread tampering like what happened with Atlanta Public Schools' cheating scandal four years ago. With an automated test, both parents and teachers would receive real-time feedback multiple times each year. The assessment avoids multiple-choice questions, and according to supporters, is better able to evaluate individual students rather than a grade midpoint. In short, there could have been a vast improvement from the mind-numbing bubble sheet tests where results return too late for the teachers to react to, or even care about, the results.

There was a time when the conservative mantra, with respect to education, focused on innovation and accountability. Too many people today, however, trump solid reasoning with paranoia and misdirection. Republicans need to figure out their stance toward public education and begin to articulate it. But they haven't. Instead, leaders face an incredible amount of noise from members of a self-proclaimed party base that's rooted in fear and misinformation rather than facts.

The party's disagreement on the issue has led to a semi-public feud between Deal and Barge, with the superintendent now in full retreat from Common Core standards. Meanwhile, Deal is struggling to find the proper assurances that other former Republican governors such as Sonny Perdue, Mike Huckabee, and Jeb Bush weren't simply fronting for education theorist Bill Ayers and President Barack Obama when Common Core's standards were originally developed and implemented. Deal is, after all, a man simultaneously being criticized by one primary opponent for not attracting enough high-tech jobs while also not capitulating to a wing of his party that believes evolution is a lie "from the pit of hell." And the cognitive dissonance of these two critical positions from the Governor's opponents should not be lost in this argument. Georgia will never attract high-wage information-based jobs if it adopts a public posture that's anti-education or anti-science.

For his part, Barge has hinted that he may mount a gubernatorial campaign, threatening Deal with a high-risk move that could end his career. On the other hand, Deal has asked the state Education Board to "review" the standards, but has yet to signal retreat. And he shouldn't.

Georgia must focus on competing for more employers who can bring 21st-century jobs to the state. To attract these employers, we must work toward improving our long-suffering public school rankings. This battle isn't about short-term political maneuvering. It's about the next generation of Georgia's students, and in a larger sense, the companies who will or won't employ them in the years to come.

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