Common Core causes split in Republican ranks

State of Our Schools series

By Bobby Harrison

Daily Journal Jackson Bureau

JACKSON – Most, if not all, the opposition to enacting new Common Core academic standards for Mississippi students has come from politicians and people affiliated with the Republican Party.

BRYANT

BRYANT

But thus far that opposition has not included three crucial Republicans – Gov. Phil Bryant, Lt. Gov. Tate Reeves and House Speaker Philip Gunn. It is hard to imagine Common Core standards being blocked in the state without Bryant, Reeves and Gunn joining the opposition.

All, in a sense, have been walking a political tightrope, not wanting to offend key supporters. They have essentially said they oppose federal intervention in developing academic standards for Mississippi students, but have stopped short of supporting blocking the enactment of Common Core.

“We are going to monitor it very closely,” Reeves, who presides over the Senate, said recently. “I think this is a serious concern … We want to make sure it does not happen where we have decisions made in Washington, D.C., for our students.”

Common Core academic standards were developed and adopted in 2009 by the bipartisan National Governors Association and the states’ top education officials. Former Gov. Haley Barbour was among those supporting Common Core, which was portrayed as an effort to ensure the nation’s education system was competitive globally.

Soon after the NGA endorsement, the Mississippi Board of Education voted to enact the new standards, which require more critical-thinking skills of students. More than 40 states, like Mississippi, have adopted the standards.

Mississippi public school systems are in the process of enacting the new standards and the new testing system that will go along with those standards.

But Tea Party-affiliated groups and others contend the new standards represent a nationalization of Mississippi’s school system, lower standards for students and are costly.

New state Superintendent Carey Wright has held steadfast in her support of Common Core, saying she believes it is “a game changer” for Mississippi students who routinely lag behind the rest of the country in academic performance. She said the standards were not developed by the federal government and the federal government does not have any say in their enactment.

Despite the support from Wright and most of the state’s education community, it is likely Common Core will be an issue during the 2014 legislative session, which starts Tuesday.

“It is my intention to stand in support of legislation that will pause implementation of the Common Core standards because of these very troubling revelations,” state Sen. Angela Hill, R-Picayune, wrote recently.

GUNN

GUNN

Hill is a member of the Senate Conservative Coalition. The 10-member group in the 52-seat state Senate was formed early last summer and has made opposing Common Core one of its primary issues.

Gunn said he has assigned a member of his speaker’s staff to examine the issues surrounding Common Core, and, if it appears to be giving the federal government control of state schools, he will oppose it.

“At this point, I am not ready to make that call,” but he added when he hears of what Common Core allegedly does, “‘I say ‘show me where it does that.’

“Sometimes I get that answer. Sometimes I don’t.”

In mid-December, Bryant issued an executive order reaffirming the state’s right to establish education standards and curriculum. The order, which his staff stressed did not block Common Core, had the backing of the Republican legislative leadership.

If legislation to block Common Core is filed, Senate Education Chair Gray Tollison, R-Oxford, said, in his Committee, “I will look at all pieces of legislation … and give them due consideration.”

But thus far, both Tollison and his counterpart, House Education Chair John Moore, R-Brandon, have seemed reluctant to get the Legislature involved in the Common Core issue.

Sen. Michael Watson, R-Pascagoula, policy chair of the Senate Conservative Coalition, said Common Core opponents would be prepared to offer floor amendments if anti-Common Core legislation is blocked in committee. But he said he is hopeful that the legislative leaders will change their stance once they know all the facts.

“They have not been traveling like we have, hearing from parents and concerned citizens,” Watson said. Groups are expected to rally in opposition to Common Core this week at the Capitol.

Watson said he expects proposals both “to pause” Common Core and to completely stop it are filed this session. He said he would prefer “to pull Mississippi out of Common Core.”

Tollison, like other pro-Common Core Republicans, chooses his words carefully on the issue. “I hope we all stick together,” he said, “because at the end of the day there is a tremendous benefit for the state and for students to raising the achievement level.”

bobby.harrison@journalinc.com