Common Core in crosshairs of House Education Committee

PHOENIX -- State lawmakers are moving to do what schools chief Diane Douglas has so far been unable: Kill the Common Core academic standards and any tests associated with them.

The House Education Committee voted 5-2 along party lines, with Republicans in the majority, to block the state Board of Education from implementing the standards developed in part by the National Governors Association. But to make sure Arizona remains alone, HB 2190 also makes it illegal for the board to adopt standards for college and career readiness that are "substantially similar to standards or assessments used by 20 or more other states.'

It also spells out that anything new adopted by the state board can't take effect until approved by the Legislature.

And to ensure anything happening now is stopped in its tracks, the legislation says the efforts to implement Common Core, adopted by the board in 2010, "are void on the effective date in this section.'

By the same margin, the committee also approved another measure that could undermine not only Common Core but any future statewide assessment.

HB 2246, sponsored by Rep. John Ackerley, R-Sahuarita, would let parents opt out of having their offspring take any sort of statewide assessment. Ackerley, a high school physics teacher, said he's not against any specific test but wants to affirm the rights of parents to make that choice.

And the full House voted 35-22 Wednesday for HB 2180 which would require the state Board of Education to create multiple alternatives to the AzMERIT test linked to Common Core -- a test that the board approved to be administered this spring -- and, more to the point, to allow local school boards to choose something other than that test.

Wednesday's action comes as Douglas, stymied so far in her efforts to fire the top two board employees for carrying out board policy to implement Common Core, is now moving to control their activities.

In a letter to the board's legal counsel Steve Tully, Douglas' attorney, said that Christine Thompson, the board's executive director, and Sabrina Vazquez, her assistant, "will be permitted to interact only socially' with employees of the Department of Education.

"They will not be permitted to discuss any policy issues with or make any direct requests of non-board Department of Education staff,' Tully wrote, saying Thompson and Vazquez must deal only with Michael Bradley, Douglas' chief of staff.

That brought an angry reaction from Mary O'Grady who represents the board.

"This is not workable or justifiable,' she wrote back to Tully. "As public employees, Ms. Thompson and Ms. Vazquez retain rights under the First Amendment, including the right to be free from unequally applied, arbitrary prohibitions on discussion 'policy issues' with other people, including employees of the department.'

The measure to quash Common Core is being shepherded through the process by Rep. Mark Finchem, R-Oro Valley.

"There seems to be some confusion about what local control is,' he told collegues.

"Local control is state control,' Finchem said. "Under Common Core, state control has been usurped by the federal government.'

Finchem also said Common Core has resulted in lower standards than what existed before.

Rep. Reginald Bolding, D-Laveen, said Finchem is lashing out at the wrong things.

He said Common Core deals with standards, meaning what students are expected to know at various points in their education. Bolding said Finchem is objecting to the curricula, including the books used, items controlled by local school boards.

Heather Kays, who lobbies for the Heartland Institute, called that an "argument of semantics.'

"If you are going to dictate what students need to know, that means you are defining what they will be taught,' said Kays whose national organization opposes Common Core. "And these specific set of standards actually do outline specific methods that need to be used to arrive at the specific answer.'

But Amanda McAdams, the 2011 Arizona "Teacher of the Year,' said the materials used are determined by staff at the school.

McAdams, who said she has three school-age children, acknowledged the comment made by Rep. Jay Lawrence, R-Scottsdale, who complained that parents "do not understand Common Core math.' And she said there may be some frustration by parents as their children find their work and homework more difficult.

"Kids will struggle,' said McAdams who teaches sophomore English at Apollo High School in Glendale. But she said the standards have resulted in students learning more.

Lawrence, however, said the result of Common Core is that parents are less involved.

"I want the parents to be able to help with homework,' he said. "They can't because they don't know what's going on.'

Brad McQueen, a fifth grade teacher in the Tanque Verde school district, said the problem with Common Core is that the standards were not developed and controlled Arizonans. McQueen, author of a book, "The Cult of Common Core' said HB 2190 "returns everything Common Core took away from our state.'

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