TOPEKA — Parents and teachers flooded into the Capitol on Wednesday for a fiery debate on whether Kansas should drop or hold onto its current education standards.
In a packed room, the House Education Committee weighed the pros and cons of the Common Core standards, which the Kansas Board of Education adopted in 2010.
House Bill 2621 would declare Common Core standards for math and English “null and void” and undo their “force and effect.” It also would rescind the Next Generation science standards adopted in 2013.
About 70 people delivered passionate speeches for or against Common Core.
Educators – teachers, principals, superintendents and professors from around the state – said the standards offer educators and students an effective guide.
But many parents delivered tearful speeches about how Common Core has stifled their children’s learning, and they railed against the dangers of increased data collection of students.
Common Core State Standards have been adopted – though not fully implemented, and in some cases delayed – by every state except Alaska, Nebraska, Texas and Virginia.
The standards initiative was sponsored by the National Governors Association and Council of Chief State School Officers in an effort to align states’ standards and measures of progress.
They are not federally mandated, but they have been strongly promoted by President Obama and Secretary of Education Arne Duncan.
Many opponents of Common Core contend there is a strong federal connection.
“It’s not officially a federal program, but I think that it’s being pushed by the federal government,” said Rep. Willie Dove, R-Bonner Springs, a few hours before the hearing. “That’s what we’re really concerned about.”
Diane DeBacker, Kansas commissioner of education, rebuffed that idea before the hearing.
“There’s this misperception that they are national standards. They aren’t. If they were national standards then every state would have to have them, which they don’t,” she said. “And every state that has adopted a form of the Common Core standards has added their own flavor. In Kansas we added extra to reflect our strong interest in career and tech ed.”
Opinions on the bill
At the hearing, supporters of the bill attacked Common Core as socialist, Orwellian and un-American.
Other critics of Common Core voiced serious concern about the extent of data collection. Paul Schwartz, a parent of two and a technology professional, asked, “What is the data security policy?”
Dyane Smokorowski, who was recognized as the Kansas Teacher of the Year in 2013 for her work at Andover Middle School, said the standards enable teachers and students to dive deeply into subject material.
“Everything has to have a real-world connection to it. So if we’re going to be looking at something with the Civil War, where do we see parallels in today’s society?” Smokorowski said. She said the standards require students’ own curiosity.
“This is about thinking. It’s about having students take a look at something, look at both sides of the issue, listen to different perspectives and come to their own conclusion. It’s not about always my answer is the right answer,” she said.
The Kansas PTA and Kansas National Education Association both urged the committee to vote against the bill, and argued the standards give educators an effective guide to craft curriculum.
However, some parents disagreed. Jennifer McCoy, a mother of 12, told the committee that teachers are just teaching children how to take standardized tests.
Craig Gabel, president of Kansans for Liberty, questioned the testimony of educators defending Common Core, accusing them of only testifying as part of their jobs.
“The rest of these people (proponents of the bill) took the day off, took days off from work, to speak and protect their family’s rights,” he said.
In the Capitol rotunda a few minutes before the hearing, Gov. Sam Brownback declined to comment on whether he supported Common Core.
His office issued a statement about the issue later on Wednesday, saying: “The Governor is sensitive to the concerns regarding the overreach of the federal government into the education standards in Kansas. He will carefully review any bill passed by the legislature.”
Rep. Kasha Kelley, R-Arkansas City, chair of the committee, said that it was clear that implementation of the standards had varied between districts. She also said that there needs to be more dialogue between both sides, and that she plans to work with the Board of Education to set up a public forum on the issue.
She said she would move legislation forward only after careful study of the issue.
Board of Ed’s role
Before the hearing, Dove, one of the primary proponents behind the bill, pointed to the Kansas Constitution, which in Article Six gives the Legislature the authority to establish and maintain public schools and educational institutions and to make changes to those institutions.
DeBacker said she respectfully disagreed with Dove’s reading of the state Constitution.
Article Six also establishes the Board of Education and gives it the authority over the “general supervision of public schools.”
The bill would take away some of the board’s authority over curriculum decisions, and cede it to a 19-member advisory council of appointees.
DeBacker reiterated that the Board of Education members who adopted the standards were elected to their posts by Kansas voters.
Ken Willard, the board’s representative at the hearing, said that would usurp the board’s constitutionally granted power.
Dove said he was only doing what he thinks is right for Kansas. “I’ve got no beef with the Board of Education,” he said. “They’re elected officials. People elected them to do their job, and people elected me to do my job. We just happen to be on opposite sides.”
Dove was quoted in the Lawrence Journal-World on Sunday, saying, “I haven’t seen the actual content of the Common Core.”
He faced criticism for that remark and on Wednesday denied its veracity.
“I never said that,” Dove said.
Reporter Peter Hancock said Dove made the statement in an audio-recorded interview last week and that it was accurate.
Dove later said the quote was accurate but was incomplete.
He said he had read some of the Common Core standards but not all. He was also unsure whether he had read the math or English standards.
“It’s just too much,” he said.