By Jeff Amy
JACKSON – When Gov. Phil Bryant issued his executive order inveighing against a possible federal takeover of education in Mississippi, he may have been doing supporters of the Common Core standards a favor.
The order doesn’t block the rollout of the standards in the state’s schools. And it could take pressure off fence-sitting lawmakers, blocking progress on legislation that would reverse or stall Mississippi’s implementation of the standards.
The Common Core math and English standards, which Mississippi’s public schools are implementing, are meant to encourage more analytical thinking and make students better at solving problems.
The state’s education leaders, starting with new Superintendent Carey Wright, have been unwavering in their belief that the new standards are higher than what the state had previously. They’re also firm in saying that Mississippi remains in control of its own schools.
Legislative leaders are well aware of the flak that’s out there relating to the standards. For example, Common Core opponents were frequent features of the town hall meetings that House Speaker Philip Gunn, R-Clinton, held around the state in the fall.
Protesters say Common Core is a cave-in to the federal government, that data collection will violate children’s privacy, and that the curriculum is a threat to Christianity.
The state Senate’s ultra-conservative faction, led by Republican Chris McDaniel of Ellisville, has been actively promoting opposition, appearing at local school board meetings and in other forums. They argue that Common Core standards are not truly rigorous and that they are a “one-size-fits-all national testing experiment” that’s wrong for Mississippi.
Still, despite unease mainly among Republican voters, legislative leaders have remained cool to any full-scale attack on Common Core. Both House Education Committee Chairman John Moore and Senate Education Committee Chairman Gray Tollison have said they don’t intend to move any broad proposals to scrap or scale back the standards in Mississippi.
In the Senate, that decision not to act is overlaid with a political dimension. McDaniel and his allies – including fellow Republican Sens. Michael Watson of Pascagoula, Angela Hill of Picayune and Tony Smith of Picayune – are promoting themselves as a purer conservative alternative to the leadership of Republican Lt. Gov. Tate Reeves. It seems unlikely that Reeves would want McDaniel and friends to have a moment in the sun, especially because Reeves quickly stepped out to endorse incumbent U.S. Sen. Thad Cochran as soon as Cochran said he’d seek another term. Cochran is being challenged by McDaniel in the Republican primary.
In the Republican-controlled House, though, Moore has indicated he could consider a bill that would put Bryant’s executive order into law. That could be a way to give lawmakers a “safe” vote against Common Core while not actually stopping implementation.
There are always risks with such an approach, because opponents in the raucously populist lower chamber could try to amend the bill to actually do something now, as opposed to pledging action against some future federal takeover. But unless the Democrats make mischief, the leadership probably could contain a challenge from anti-Core Republicans.
There will still be chances for opponents to go after Common Core, though, even if no specific bill makes it to the floor. Look for them to try to strip out or bar funding for Mississippi’s participation in a multi-state network that’s developing tests for Common Core. This strategy has shown some success in Georgia and Florida, with arguments over how much the test will cost. Opponents would still be left with the question of how Mississippi should test under the new standards, since current tests evaluate learning under the old standards.