Georgia cites 'educational sovereignty' in move to abandon Common Core

Georgia was a leader in devising a 'common core' of education standards for 45 states. But state lawmakers are targeting the Common Core an anti-Washington crusade that could echo nationwide.

Jason Reed/Reuters/File
President Obama plays a game with children in a pre-kindergarten classroom at College Heights early childhood learning center in Decatur, Georgia, February 14, 2013.

Georgia Republicans, rebelling against what they see as a federal schoolhouse grab, may succeed in a first-in-the-nation bid to derail the so-called Common Core school standards while returning more control of math, social studies, and science curricula to local school districts in the Deep South state.

Common Core, the new standard for public schools in 45 states and the District of Columbia, began as a push by state governors and business interests to encourage better-educated public school graduates, and Georgia was among the leaders.

But now Georgia is leading a charge to bar federal interference in what students are taught or how they are tested, including the use of federal funds to reward states that adopt the Common Core. It's a backlash that's playing out in states ranging from South Dakota to New York

The shift began after the 2010 election, when a slew of tea party-affiliated lawmakers took office in Georgia. Picking up on agitation across the state, they questioned whether Common Core represents a push for higher standards or, rather, a new incursion by the federal government into state affairs. Last week, the Senate handily passed Senate Bill 167, which pulls Georgia out of the Common Core and blocks related tests. The House is pushing the measure toward passage as early as next week, and Gov. Nathan Deal (R) is expected to sign it into law.

In that vein, SB 167 uses rhetoric aimed squarely at the tea party, such as its aim to promote "educated citizens equipped to preserve a self-governing republic of free people." The bill singles out federal sex education standards as particularly pernicious, thus addressing concerns among religious conservative voters that federal standards could be used to push a gay political agenda.

The bill, which in essence formalizes Georgia sovereignty over its schoolhouses, has catalyzed the populace. At a House Education Committee hearing on Wednesday, hundreds of school officials, teachers and parents packed a hearing room, mostly to decry the proposal as lowering standards and hurting Georgia kids.

The bill mandates that no multi-state or third-party testing will be allowed, given that what’s to be on a high-stakes test tends to drive class content. The bill also restricts how the state can share student and teacher data, in part to bar dissemination of student data on issues such as religious and political beliefs, whether there are guns in the home, and family income.

If Senate Bill 167 makes it through the House fairly unscathed,  it hands the state’s evangelically tinged tea party factions a major victory in a broader philosophical battle over the appropriate balance between federal influence and states' rights.

“This notion of giving emphasis to local and state control as opposed to federal control ties back into this general distrust of government … and lends itself to bumper sticker sloganeering … in a state that has long been one that’s been suspicious of federal government along a number of dimensions,” says Charles Bullock, a political scientist at the University of Georgia in Athens.

“The position of leaders in Georgia has shifted also [where] this is no longer seen as education improvement, which everybody is in favor of, but instead in terms of federal interference, which is a very different kind of issue.” 

Only five years ago, former Georgia Gov. Sonny Perdue (R), as chair of the National Governors Association, helped lead a 45-state consortium building the new set of school standards – the so-called Common Core – aimed at improving education and student outcomes in states that voluntarily adopt the standards. The standards set a uniform goal for what US third-graders, for example, should know, but doesn't mandate how teachers get students to that point. 

While current bill won’t outright ban the Common Core – instead it sets up a Content Standards Advisory Council where "parents or grandparents" would hold a majority – the bill would bar schools from using new science standards, set to roll out this fall. Also barred by the bill would be the National Health Education Standards, the National Curriculum for Social Studies, and the National Sexuality Standards.

Proponents say the proposal is simply a bulwark that ensures that Georgia controls what Georgia kids learn, including what they get tested on.

“This bill is the first major piece of legislation … passed anywhere in the nation that has allowed the voice of the people to clearly say that national standards are unacceptable,” said Sen. William Ligon (R), author of the bill, after the Senate passed it last week. The people of Georgia can “finally can begin go reclaim their educational sovereignty over what their children are taught in public schools," he added.

Critics say the bill is an costly about-face based on a fallacy – that the Obama administration is trying to directly control what gets taught at school when, in fact, a state consortium built the plan. President Obama’s only involvement came when his administration in 2009 began giving extra points in the distribution of "Race to the Top" grant money to those who adopted the Common Core.

Given that federal money is now linked to the Common Core, “it is easy to understand how those who value ‘local control’ want to tap the brakes,” writes columist Charlie Harper in the Columbus, Ga., Ledger Enquirer. But as written, he adds, the Georgia bill “politicizes education policy with a stance that is decidedly anti-science and anti-technology.”

Despite dire warnings from state education leaders about the impact of SB 167 on the quality of education in the state, political experts see it as a potentially expanding front in the legislative sniper battle between conservative states and the White House on issues ranging from abortion to gun rights, immigration to gay marriage. 

Already, lawmakers in seven states have introduced legislation to repeal Common Core, and those efforts could gain momentum if Georgia's bill makes it to the governor's desk. 

“I don’t think Georgia will be the only state” to take a second look at already ongoing Common Core implementation, as the new standards are set to go live, says Professor Bullock, at UGA.

Republicans control all three branches of Georgia government. Georgia ranks 17th in the nation when it comes to student achievement gains, according to Education Week, and is consistently in the top 10 nationally when it comes to standards and assessments

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