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Facing bipartisan backlash, Oklahoma reconsiders Common Core education standards

April 11, 2014 at 10:02 PM EDT
Oklahoma is the latest state to move toward repealing the Common Core national education standards. Once a source of bipartisan support, the standards now face criticism from the left and right. Jeffrey Brown gets two views on the potential repeal from Oklahoma state representatives, Republican Jason Nelson and Democrat Emily Virgin.
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JUDY WOODRUFF: This month, Oklahoma became the latest state to take a big step toward repealing the Common Core education standards. The Oklahoma State Senate passed a bill just last week to do so, this as more than a dozen other states are considering repeal, and still others are reviewing how they use the standards when it comes to teaching and testing.

It’s a big shift from the broad and often bipartisan support that Common Core enjoyed just a few years ago.

Jeffrey Brown has the story.

JEFFREY BROWN: Common Core was initiated in 2009 by the nation’s governors, seeking national standards for math and English literacy.

U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan supported the move, spending $350 million to develop Common Core tests.

ARNE DUNCAN, Secretary of Education: I believe this new generation of assessment is an absolute game-changer for American education.

JEFFREY BROWN: In relatively short order, nearly every state agreed to create curricula based on the Common Core guidelines.

But more recently, a backlash has begun. Last month, Indiana became the first state to drop the Common Core standards it had already adopted.

Governor Mike Pence explained the move in an Indianapolis radio interview.

GOV. MIKE PENCE, R, Ind.: Hoosiers should be very proud and take every opportunity to be engaged in the fact that we’re the first state in the country that’s really going back to the principle that education is a state and local function.

JEFFREY BROWN: Now Oklahoma and other states are moving to follow Indiana’s lead. The criticism initially stemmed from conservatives leery of federal involvement, with some labeling the program “Obamacore.”

Pennsylvania Congressman John Kline chairs the House Education Committee.

REP. JOHN KLINE, R, Minn.: That’s the ultimate fear, that the federal government does get in the curricula business and tells the states what they’re supposed to teach.

JEFFREY BROWN: There’s been criticism on the left as well, particularly over testing requirements.

New York’s Democratic Governor Andrew Cuomo has said execution of the standards was — quote — “flawed.”

The program still has its champions, though. One is the Republican former Florida Governor Jeb Bush. Last Sunday on FOX News, he made a push for Common Core.

FMR. GOV. JEB BUSH, R, Fla.: If you don’t have high expectations, high standards, you’re not going to go anywhere. The idea that it’s a federal program is based — is just not true. It’s — it’s just not. It was voluntarily created by — by governors.

JEFFREY BROWN: Meanwhile, the repeal move is gathering momentum. It’s expected to clear the Oklahoma legislature in the next few weeks.

And we go to Oklahoma now to explore all of this.

We’re joined by two state representatives. Republican Jason Nelson is co-author of bill to repeal the standards. Democrat Emily Virgin is opposed to such a repeal.

Well, Representative Nelson, why — first with you — why is something that looked good in 2010 no longer the right way to go?

JASON NELSON, R, Oklahoma State Representative: Well, what I think most legislators and Oklahomans looked forward to in 2010 was higher standards.

I think a lot of states struggle with setting high standards and maintaining them, not watering them down over time. And I think the hope in 2010 was that Common Core would do that for us. And, as it turns out, the Fordham Institute looked at and compared the states’ standards against Common Core, and we found out that really we didn’t gain anything, but we did cede control to an outside entity.

So the bill that we’re writing right now says that the state has to maintain control over its standards, but we also include higher ed in our state in our career tech system and developing the new standards, so the public and the legislators that will be voting on the bill have confidence that the standards will be actually higher than what we have had in the past.

JEFFREY BROWN: And, Representative Virgin, you still support the Common Core as it was voted in earlier. Why? And why do you think there is this opposition now?

EMILY VIRGIN, D, Oklahoma State Representative: I do support the Common Core as it was voted in with bipartisan support in 2010.

I think the opposition is mainly coming from a lot of fringe groups. And, unfortunately, the Republican Party in Oklahoma is giving in to those groups, when we have school districts across the state, like my district in Norman, that have spent thousands of dollars and spent a lot on professional development implementing these standards over the last three years.

And this bill would essentially just pull the rug out from our teachers and administrators. The problem with this bill right now is that we have a very short period of time to come up with a completely new set of standards, and I just don’t think that’s enough time. I don’t think it’s fair to the teachers and school districts and students that have spent much time and hard work implementing these high standards.

JEFFREY BROWN: So, Jason Nelson, this is something we have heard in — around the country really, that part of the backlash is political, that that’s what happened, this turn against Common Core, that was bipartisan at one point.

JASON NELSON: Well, to say that education policy is a political issue is an understatement of the year, certainly in Oklahoma.

The reality is the people in Oklahoma want their kids to get a great education. Common Core promised that and, quite frankly, didn’t deliver. And so the state is left to look to another solution. We believe including higher ed and career tech in that process doesn’t just give us a set of good standards, but give us standards that exceed those that have been offered by the Common Core.

So, you know, what was a good idea last year will be a good idea next year in the standards, and to the extent that school districts have initiated and implemented good practices and good standards in line with the Common Core, we want them to be able to continue that. But to the extent we have imposed on our local school boards and school districts and educators things that aren’t productive in our classrooms and beneficial to kids, we want to — we don’t want to force them to continue to do that.

JEFFREY BROWN: So, you’re rejecting the notion that it’s fringe groups or outside groups that are really pushing the agenda here?

JASON NELSON:  Well, there’s groups what I would say would be from the right and groups from the left.

There’s educators that I know like the Common Core and there are educators I know that don’t like the Common Core. What the bill seeks to do is put back into the hands of our state board of education the responsibility and authority of developing the standards and really reversing the course that the legislature took in 2010, when we specified a very specific set of standards.

JEFFREY BROWN: And, Emily Virgin, to be clear and fair, criticism does come from the left, comes from teachers unions, comes from various sources here.

EMILY VIRGIN: Absolutely. It does come from both sides. Mainly, in Oklahoma, the opposition has come from the right, but I have heard some from the left also.

But I think that’s a sign of a good set of challenging standards, is that we’re seeing some opposition from both sides. We still haven’t heard anything concrete as to what is wrong with these standards. And I have never seen any type of evidence that says that they’re not working.

We know that we can’t go back to what we were doing before, because that wasn’t working, and this was put together by a group of governors, and educators who are involved in the process. And these are higher standards that will make sure that students in Oklahoma measure up to the rest of the country and that they don’t have to rely on remedial courses when they enter college.

JEFFREY BROWN: Well, Jason Nelson, that’s one of the questions here. You’re talking about high standards. Common Core talks about high standards.

One of the things you hear is, this is just kind of a rebranding, that, OK, don’t call it Common Core. Now it’s going to be Oklahoma Common Core.

JASON NELSON:  Well, and, in fact, that’s already happened. I think it was last year the governor by executive order said that the standards would be referred to as Oklahoma academic standards.

And, again, if a standard, a set of standards and a practice of teaching is a good idea today, it will be a good idea tomorrow. And we would want teachers to continue to do that, but we want educators and parents in the business community and higher ed and our career tech system to be able to develop those standards.

And that wasn’t the case totally last time. There was a national testing consortium that Oklahoma was a part of and then again the Common Core was developed by a group from outside the state. I think Oklahomans are capable of developing standards where the educators, parents, anybody that’s interested can get involved and make sure those standards reflect the aspirations of Oklahoma families, and businesses and educators.

JEFFREY BROWN: If this goes down, Emily Virgin, are you — well, what do you think will be the implications for students in Oklahoma? Because part of the impetus of this, of course, was not to — to make sure that some states don’t fall behind.

EMILY VIRGIN: Correct. And students in Oklahoma will not be able to be measured with the rest of the country that have adopted these standards.

That was one of the big bonuses of the Common Core was that standards would be the same across the country. We would be able to measure ourselves against other states and against students in other states. And we won’t be able to do that if we pull out of the Common Core. Oklahoma will also have a really hard time — if we adopt really different from Common Core, we will have a hard time finding textbooks, we will have a hard time curriculum and professional development for our teachers, who have already — who have already implemented this in their classrooms.

JEFFREY BROWN: And, just briefly, are you expecting it to be repealed, in fact?

EMILY VIRGIN: That has — that’s yet to be determined.

We passed a bill in the House, and then it went to the Senate and became pretty different than what we passed in the House, and we’re expecting that to go to conference committee. So we may have to wait until the last few weeks of session. And I think that’s just not fair to our students and educators, who are relying on a consistent set of standards.

JEFFREY BROWN: All right, we will watch what happens in your state and others.

Representative Emily Virgin, Representative Jason Nelson of Oklahoma, thanks so much.

JASON NELSON:  You’re welcome.

EMILY VIRGIN: Thank you.