Raleigh, N.C. — North Carolina would begin walking away from the Common Core standards for math and English in public schools under proposed legislation that a student committee approved Thursday.
The full General Assembly will take up the measure when it returns to session in mid-May.
"Common Core is gone July 1 if this passes," said Sen. Jerry Tillman, R-Randolph, one of the measure's leading proponents. "This bill puts education back where the constitution says it belongs – in the hands of North Carolina."
Although the bill does delete legislative language referencing Common Core standards, it does not take them out of play right away. Rather, the measure would create an Academic Standards Review Commission to develop standards "tailored to the needs of North Carolina's students."
The commission would be part of the state Department of Administration, not the Department of Public Instruction. It would be instructed to finish a first run at revising the standards by 2015, in time for the 2016 legislative session.
The revised standards would go to State Board of Education for approval, but if lawmakers don't agree with the board's position, they could override it and enact new standards themselves.
"It's going to take a little bit of time," said Rep. Bryan Holloway, R-Stokes, insisting that existing academic standards would remain in place for the coming school year until the commission makes its recommendations. "We are operating on Common Core standards. We will continue operating on that. The commission is set up to replace that."
The bill would block the DPI from buying any national tests created by one of the two major national Common Core consortia without legislative approval.
Common Core standards 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.
Supporters say the standards ensure students can move from school district to school district 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.
"I can say with good authority that North Carolina’s current standards are, in fact, a positive step toward preparing today’s students for the jobs of tomorrow,” Lew Ebert, president and chief executive of the North Carolina Chamber, said in a statement. “Ultimately, the decision we are making is whether we want to grow our talent locally or hire it from out of state. North Carolina employers would prefer to hire locally.”
The standards have come under fire nationally. While some political liberals have questioned how the standards were developed, political conservatives have been the most vocal in their opposition. They criticize the measures as a federal takeover of education.
"We've allowed the Common Core standard to be hijacked by the federal government for the sake of money," said Rep. Craig Horn, R-Union.
While he initially favored the standards, Horn said that they made the state too dependent on the federal government.
"I just feel that it is time for the state of North Carolina to take responsibility for our own education system and not be dependent upon or subservient to the federal Department of Education or anybody else outside North Carolina for what we do in education," said Rep. Larry Pittman, R-Cabarrus.
Some members of the committee, mainly Democrats, blasted the bill.
"I think we are going down this road to appease a section of the political spectrum that is more conservative and is distrustful of Obama and the federal government," Rep. Tricia Cotham, D-Mecklenburg, said after the meeting.
During debate over the bill, Cotham told fellow lawmakers that political considerations, rather than educational ones, were driving the measure.
"We should not politicize curriculum standards," she said. "We've seen how organizations and grassroots influence certain people and scare people. Is that what is going to happen to our curriculum down the road?"
Pressure pushes changes
The Common Core 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.
Rep. Marcus Brandon, D-Guilford, said that, by rolling back the standards, lawmakers could be fixing something that isn't the problem.
"Common Core is about standards, and most of the problems we hear about, especially from the public, are about curriculum," Brandon said.
He added that much of the opposition to the standards came from people's fears that the Common Core would lead schools to indoctrinate children in a politically liberal philosophy.
"That is not true, and that's what lead us here today – that false accusation," he said.
Common Core critics said the state can't separate standards from curriculum.
"I don’t like the rewriting of history. I don’t like the revisionist history. I don’t like the social justice. I don’t like the political correctness. It’s not education. It is indoctrination," said Kim Fink, of New Bern, with the Coastal Carolina Taxpayers Association. "Education started to fail when the Department of Education in Washington, D.C., came into existence. We did fine without them, and we can do fine without them again."
During previous meetings of the committee, Common Core opponents said that some of the standards set goals that were too rigorous for the grade level. They also focused on reading recommendations that some critics considered inappropriate for children.
"We want all of our students to have the highest standard possible, and it's not OK or ever acceptable to say that we want to lower standards so my Johnny can meet those criteria," Brandon said. "Move your Johnny up to the standard."
Superintendent of Public Instruction June Atkinson also cautioned against setting the bar lower for students, although she said she welcomes a review of the English and math standards in North Carolina's curriculum.
"North Carolina should act cautiously and carefully before making changes to our Standard Course of Study. The stakes – the competitive future of our young people and our state – are very high,” Atkinson said in a statement.
Although the commission charged with revising the standards would not have to finish its work until late in 2015, it would be empowered to make suggestions for changes to be implemented sooner. Holloway referenced the recommended reading lists as one possible area that would be ripe for those interim suggestions.
"If there's something extremely egregious, it will allow them to make that recommendation right away," Holloway said.
Lt. Gov. Dan Forest, a vocal critic of the Common Core standards, praised the committee for approving the proposal.
"The General Assembly listened to the voices of thousands of parents, teachers, administrators and concerned citizens about the issues with Common Core," Forest said in a statement. "This legislative action allows North Carolina to develop its own rigorous standards, created by its own teachers, school administrators, business leaders and parents."
Gov. Pat McCrory, who has said he supports Common Core, and officials in his administration have been more circumspect about the drive to replace the standards.
"Gov. McCrory is a strong supporter of high standards," said Eric Guckian, McCrory's chief education adviser. "He is working every day toward a singular goal, and that is to ensure that every student and every citizen of North Carolina has the skills they need to get and keep a real-world job. High standards and high expectations are the table stakes for that goal. We welcome the opportunity to improve upon these standards, but any attempt to lower them is not an acceptable option."