Raleigh, N.C. — The House voted Wednesday to repeal and replace the Common Core academic standards in North Carolina schools, and a Senate committee advanced its own legislation advocating repeal.
Common Core standards for math and English were developed by state and nonprofit leaders, and they have been embraced by President Barack Obama's Education Department and adopted by 44 states. In North Carolina, the standards are backed by the North Carolina Chamber, the state's largest business group.
The standards are not a curriculum, but they do set out what students need to know and be able to do in order to graduate from high schools. School districts and classroom teachers still decide how that material is taught.
"A lot of work and energy and time were invested in something we should have never gotten into to start with," said Sen. Jerry Tillman, R-Randolph. "We ought to own our standards, and this will put them in our hands."
Before the House voted 78-39 in favor of the repeal action, Democrats questioned the lack of funding for the proposed Academic Standards Review Commission, which would be charged with reviewing existing math and English standards nationwide and recommending to the State Board of Education a package tailored to fit North Carolina's needs.
Rep. Marcus Brandon, D-Guilford, said North Carolina can barely afford to pay teachers, let alone overhaul its academic standards.
"We're walking around like we're big, bad North Carolina that has done this better than anyone else. Quite the contrary," Brandon said. "Now, we're going to say we're going to provide all the professional development, we're going to provide all the curriculum, we're going to provide all these things ... because we're big, bas North Carolina and (President) Obama can't tell us what to do. This is not smart policy."
Rep. Michael Speciale, R-Craven, responded that the state only got into Common Core "for a big check" and now needs to reclaim its public schools.
North Carolina accepted $400 million in federal Race to the Top grants tied to implementing Common Core. The proposals are trying to work around the prospect of the state having to refund that money.
"We sold our kids' education, we sold their futures for $400 million," Speciale said. "We are not in a position to be experimenting with their futures."
Common Core supporters say the standards ensure students can move from one school district to another and prepare themselves for college and careers, and business groups say the standards will equip students with better reasoning skills and the ability to work cooperatively.
But the standards have come under fire nationally, mostly from political conservatives who criticize the measures as a federal takeover of education.
Kim Fink of the Coastal Carolina Taxpayers Association told the Senate Education Committee that Common Core goes beyond mere guidelines to include specific tasks for teachers and students.
"We're ceding control of our education system to the chamber of commerce and the big business entities," Fink said. "We need to keep North Carolina North Carolina and forget what the big businesses say. These are our children."
Mark Jewell, vice president of the North Carolina Association of Educators, urged senators to keep Common Core in place, noting teachers have adapted their teaching styles in recent years and are seeing success with the national standards in the classroom.
"To embrace strong standards is critical, and supporting teachers who implement these standards are key to North Carolina's economic success," Jewell said.
Tillman said he never set out to repeal Common Core, saying he thought the program would be good for the state's students. In discussing the standards with parents and teachers, however, the former school administrator said he determined Common Core was flawed. He said the math standards aren't rigorous enough, for example, and the program is "off target" in early grades.
"I spent 40 years trying to raise (standards) in school systems and in schools," he said. "I never, ever wanted to lower standards. I wanted to increase them. I still do."
Sen. Josh Stein, D-Wake, called the repeal legislation "totally unnecessary," noting the State Board of Education will soon conduct its routine five-year review of academic standards and could adjust Common Core as needed then.
"Teachers are under so much duress and stress right now. Why are we creating a whole layer of uncertainty in our public schools?" Stein said.
Sen. Malcolm Graham, D-Mecklenburg, said scrapping Common Core appears to be a knee-jerk reaction to isolated complaints and will prevent consistency in schools.
Tillman bristled at the suggestion he would legislate based on a few phone calls, and Sen. Bill Cook, R-Beaufort, said complaints over Common Core are more widespread than Graham believes.
"A lot of folks out there are really displeased with it," Cook said.
The primary difference between the House and Senate bills is that the Senate measure gives lawmakers more control over appointments to the 17-member Academic Standards Review Commission. But another important difference in philosophy surfaced in legislative debates.
Rep. Bryan Holloway, R-Stokes, said the commission wouldn't include Common Core standards in its review, while Tillman left the door open as to whether some of the repealed program might make its way back into state classrooms.
"Nothing's out, nothing's in. It's ours and not theirs, that's the main thing," Tillman said, adding later that he doubted Common Core would return in its entirety.
Gov. Pat McCrory has expressed concern about the repeal effort, saying that he believes much of the concern over the program is wrapped up in testing rather than the national standards themselves.
State Superintendent of Public Instruction June Atkinson was more blunt in her criticism of the legislation, saying Common Core can be revised over time without putting teachers and students in the center of an ideological fight.
"To make our teachers go back to the drawing board would be another example of piling on unnecessarily more work and more frustration," Atkinson said.