Want to boil the blood of some Pennsylvania voters? Utter four words: “Common Core state standards.”
For those leery of all things federal, all things Obama, the push to align academic expectations on a consistent, nationwide basis causes heart rates to rise exponentially.
This week, Republicans in the Pennsylvania House are accusing Gov. Tom Corbett of preying on those fears in an election-season political move that they say undercuts sound policy.
On Monday, Corbett called for the state board of education to hold an “immediate, statewide” public review of state education standards in language arts and math, worrying that they too closely ally with Common Core.
“Common Core has become nothing more than a top-down takeover of the education system,” Corbett said in an official statement. “It is nothing more than Obamacare for education.”
Yet, soon after Corbett’s official release, two Republican state representatives – Seth Grove of York and Ryan Aument of Lancaster – blasted the governor’s logic in a release of their own.
“It just doesn’t make sense,” said Grove in a telephone interview. “Why would the governor do a review of his own standards?”
Here, a lesson in recent history is needed:
In July 2010, during the Ed Rendell administration, the state board of education adopted the federal government’s prescription for Common Core state standards.
When Rendell left office in 2011, newly elected governor Corbett worked with the Republican-held state Legislature to amend those standards in a way that ensured greater student privacy and guaranteed local control over curriculum decisions.
In 2013, those changes were unanimously enacted in House Resolution 338.
“We’ve already done the work on this,” said Grove. “Revisiting what has already been revisited twice a year ago makes absolutely no policy sense.”
As it stands, local school districts have the freedom to develop whatever coursework they wish; neither the state nor federal government has the power to mandate specific reading lists; and students do not take national tests.
‘Pa. already out of Common Core’
As House leadership spokesman Steven Miskin put it, “For all intents and purposes, Pennsylvania is already out of Common Core.”
On Tuesday, at an event outside Philadelphia, Corbett further explained his rationale.
“In traveling the state, it’s become clear to me that many felt that they may not have been included in the review and had their voices heard,” he said. “So that’s what we’re going to ask the state board of education to do, is to have these hearings so that everybody can have a feeling that they’ve been heard.”
Grove calls bunk on Corbett’s premise, saying the past four years have allowed plenty of time for public comment.
“I think, mostly, this is a politically driven issue,” said Grove.
To Grove and Aument, Corbett’s announcement this week essentially amounts to showing up to the party a year late. They say the governor hasn’t done a good enough job communicating the facts about Pennsylvania’s standards.
“If the administration had done this [public relations] a year ago, we wouldn’t be having this discussion right now. And we asked them to do it a year ago, and they failed to do it,” said Grove. “They’re just doing it now as a campaign hit piece.”
In a telephone interview, Aument stressed how the governor’s announcement is causing uproar in school districts.
He said he fielded two calls Tuesday from concerned superintendents in the Lancaster area.
“For the last number of years, they have been spending considerable taxpayer dollars to realign their curriculum, buy new textbooks,” he said. “We seem to be getting two messages here — one from the Corbett campaign and one from the Department of Education, and it’s causing tremendous confusion.”
Hearings set to ‘clear the air’
Spurred by the disagreement between Corbett and House lawmakers, Rep. Paul Clymer, R-Bucks, chair of the House Education Committee, has scheduled two hearings in which he hopes to “clear the air so that we can all be on the same page.”
The hearings will be held at the Capitol Sept. 24 and Oct. 14.
Clymer, though, admits that it’s “frustrating” to have to schedule hearings on issues that have already been resolved.
State Education Secretary Carolyn Dumaresq defended Corbett’s view.
“This continued public review process not only will give parents and taxpayers a stronger voice in helping to shape our public education system, but also will ensure that they have the opportunity to see what students are expected to learn and be able to do at each grade level and in each subject area,” she said in the official release.
The schedule of meetings by the State Board of Education will be known following Dumaresq’s presentation at its meeting this week in Harrisburg.
Grove worries that re-engaging in the Common Core debate threatens the other education reform efforts – such as including standardized test scores in teacher evaluations – for which the legislature worked hard to build consensus.
“The big fear is opening up all that education reform that the administration and the General Assembly has done over the past four years and throwing it away on a whim,” he said. “On a political whim.”
Several calls to the Corbett administration seeking comment were not returned.
WHYY’s Katie Colaneri contributed to this report.