Charlie Harper: Common Core faces ballot test

May 6, 2014 

There are 15 people currently running to be Georgia's next state school superintendent. On May 20, the field will likely be winnowed down to four -- two Democrats and two Republicans -- for another nine week contest to narrow this field down to two. Perhaps somewhere along the way, the general public will engage and make this race matter. As of now, there's little buzz and about as little fundraising activity surrounding this race. The election action surrounding education is currently in the governor's race.

That shouldn't be terribly surprising. It is the Governor who has the biggest say in the percentage of Georgia's budget that is devoted to education. Perhaps more importantly, it is the Governor and not the state school superintendent who appoints the members of the state School Board. It is those board members who determine statewide policy for Georgia's schools.

On the Democratic side, Senator Jason Carter has staked much of his campaign's early rhetoric on the topic of education. Carter is sticking to the premise that Georgia's education problem is rooted in funding, and promises to set a separate education budget prior to dealing with those other pesky items the state must also pay for, like roads and prisons.

But before we can contrast Carter's ideas in a general election setting, we must first have a Republican nominee. We can likely presume that to be current Governor Nathan Deal, but we should not overlook the importance of May 20 on the Governor's race and the Republican position on education.

While Governor Deal is being challenged by Georgia's current Superintendent John Barge, the positions each has on education do not differ drastically enough to define the differences between them. Deal did support Georgia's recent Charter School Amendment, which Barge opposed. Give Deal and edge over Barge for the record on school choice.

Dalton Mayor David Pennington, however, has made Georgia withdrawing from Common Core standards a centerpiece of his campaign message. Here, the differences are more pronounced.

Pennington's message has been escalating around Common Core repeal since Senate Bill 167 died in Georgia's House. While the bill was promoted as an anti-Common Core bill, it didn't remove Georgia from Common Core standards. It would have, instead, virtually ended online learning over data collection concerns, and made it almost impossible for Georgia's School Board to implement any science standard that included teaching evolution. SB 167's supporters held up "David Pennington for Governor" signs just before the final House hearing that voted "Do Not Pass" on the measure, killing the bill for the session.

Pennington's website criticizes Deal's measured response to concerns over Common Core, which has included withdrawing from a new nationalized test and refusing to turn identifiable student data over to the Feds. In it, he states "it would have taken me 3 seconds to reject (Common Core) in its entirety."

Therein lies not only the contrast between the two candidates, but a problem with Pennington's overall approach and understanding of the issue.

Common Core represents the GOP's most significant contribution to education reform since taking the Governor's mansion in 2002. Its origins began with Kathy Cox's revamp of Georgia's curriculum, after determining that more rigor was required to get Georgia out of the education rankings cellar.

Matched to that curriculum were Georgia's Performance Standards. These were the benchmarks used to ensure that each school was teaching the proper lessons, and each student was learning them. The overhaul, while not without controversy, received national acclaim.

When Governor Sonny Perdue became the head of the National Governors Association, there was a concern that the federal government had begun to interfere too much with state control of education via programs such as No Child Left Behind. The governors decided the most appropriate response was to establish voluntary standards themselves in order to prevent the federal government from doing so.

Because Georgia had established its standards most recently, and because of their rigor and acclaim, they were used as the basis for the math and English standards. The move from Georgia Performance Standards to Common Core was much less significant than the original move to establish GPS.

What is significant here is that GPS and Common Core represented a commitment not to just throw money into a broken system, but to figure out what worked and establish high standards around that.

David Pennington would take just three seconds to throw away a decade of real education reform. Georgia's students, parents, and teachers deserve better.

If polling numbers are correct, these three seconds will never come to pass. But the issue can be said to have been settled at the polls. Elections have consequences. The May 20 GOP gubernatorial primary should consequentially settle the Common Core issue for Georgia once and for all.

Charlie Harper, author and editor of the Peach Pundit blog, writes on Georgia politics and government; www.peachpundit.com.

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