DES MOINES — U.S. Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas had just left the stage at the Des Moines Marriott and walked into a gaggle of reporters.
Cruz had been speaking Tuesday to an assembly of home-school families. He told them he believed in religious freedom and educational choice. With the reporters, he added a finer point.
“I emphatically oppose the Common Core,” he said.
He’s not alone.
In statehouses across the country, legislators are debating laws to delay, or eliminate, parts of the Common Core standards for reasons ranging from curriculum control to suspicion over government data collection.
Several bills were introduced in the Iowa Legislature this year. Only one, which didn’t do much except reiterate that curriculum decisions are under the authority of local school boards and called for public hearings on educational standards, unanimously passed the Iowa House. It didn’t get called in the Senate.
“I think this is going to be a big issue, especially in the Republican primaries,” said Bill Gustoff, an attorney, home-school advocate and candidate for the Republican Central Committee. “It’s one more piece of growing government into education.”
Launched in 2010, Common Core was an effort spearheaded by the National Governors Association and the Council of Chief State School Officers which saw a need to have a common set of educational standards to prepare students to compete in the global economy and an assessment to determine if students met the goals.
The test also would allow states to compare their students to each other, something that is difficult to do now because of the limited number of students who participate in the National Assessment of Educational Progress test or take college entrance exams.
Forty-five states, including Iowa, adopted the Common Core English and Math standards. Nebraska, Alaska, Virginia and Texas have not adopted either, and Minnesota only adopted the English standards. In Iowa, the Common Core Standards became part of the Iowa Core, statewide standards adopted in 2008.
So why the kickback now?
First, most states set goals to have the standards implemented by the 2013-14 or 2014-15 school years. Second, a pair of testing consortiums expects to launch Common Core-aligned standardized tests next year. Iowa is a governing state member of one of the consortiums called Smarter Balanced.
“They’ve talked really positively about the Smarter Balanced test. The governor’s talking real positively about it, but the problem with that is it leads right into control with the federal government,” said state Rep. Sandy Salmon, R-Janesville. “That’s the concern.”
Salmon is the leading voice against the Common Core in the Statehouse. She distributed anti-core “dear colleague” letters to fellow Republicans and had legislation drafted to drastically pull Iowa back from the standards. She argued the federal government could abuse testing data it collects, and local school boards were better equipped to make educational decisions.
“For all intents and purposes we really didn’t accomplish anything to protect student data or to receive any input about the standards, so we’re essentially at square one,” Salmon said.
Rep. Ron Jorgensen, R-Sioux City, and chairman of the House education committee, said national standards would help Iowans see how its education program measures up against other states, but that shouldn’t come at the cost of state control.
“I’m a believer in statewide state standards, I’m a believer in Iowa standards. I’m not a believer in us being mandated to have national standards,” he said. “If other state standards end up being comparable, that’s fine.”
Sharon Steckman, a former public school teacher and a Democratic state representative from Mason City, says there’s too much hyperbole poisoning the debate. She says people confuse standards with curriculum, which has always been under the purview of local boards and principals.
“As a teacher, I would expect my second-graders, my fifth-graders, my juniors in high school, to come to me with a certain background of knowledge, and I build on that,” she said. “That’s what standards are totally about. It’s not about the takeover of our children’s minds or the federal government getting their fingerprints or any of their secret information. It’s simply not about that.”
The state’s Assessment Task Force is expected to come back in late summer with a recommendation on which standardized test — if any — it should adopt. The recommendation goes to the State Board of Education and then the Iowa Legislature.
That’s when the debate will likely heat up again, just in time for the general election.“They’re taking an issue that was not political years ago; it was totally accepted,” Steckman said. “All of a sudden you’re digging into it and finding things that are not really there. It’s become a partisan issue, too, and that’s too bad.”