Analysis: What’s next for the K-12 task force?

After the three-hour listening session wrapped up Thursday night, Richard Westerberg got another earful.

Flanked by two staffers, the State Board of Education member was buttonholed by about a dozen opponents of Common Core, the academic standards on track to launch in Idaho classrooms this fall. Several of the Common Core critics had already testified earlier in the evening, but they weren’t going to leave without making another appeal for Idaho to ditch the standards.

The impromptu discussion was, in a way, a good metaphor for the education reform task force’s seven-city tour, which concluded Thursday. Assigned to hit the road to glean ideas from Idahoans — a first step before drafting bills for the 2014 legislative session — Gov. Butch Otter’s 31-member task force fielded complaints about Common Core, something lawmakers approved 27 months ago.

Boise 1
Some 200 people attended Thursday night’s education task force forum in Boise Thursday. For many of the 37 speakers, Common Core was their biggest concern.

Common Core was a recurring theme during the forums, in Boise and beyond, but hardly the only theme. Nor was Common Core the only emotional topic. On Thursday night, for example, task force members heard an impassioned argument for education funding from Steve Smylie. The educator and former legislator — and son of former Gov. Robert Smylie — invoked his father’s name and effort to pass a sales tax to fund public education. We’re back to 1965,” he said. “We have a system that cannot support itself.” (Smylie submitted his comments to Idaho Education News’ Voices section; read them here.)

Smylie received a hearty ovation, but the loudest applause was reserved for Common Core opponents. The opponents said Common Core — which is in the works in 45 states and the District of Columbia — would leave Idaho schools at the mercy of the federal government. Or at the mercy of the big-business interests, such as Microsoft, who support the initiative. Or at the mercy of both. Calling the standards Idaho Core Standards “doesn’t make them any more Idaho,” critic Stephanie Zimmerman said Thursday night.

Opponents also accused state officials, and specifically Superintendent of Public Instruction Tom Luna, of slipping the standards through without public input.

Speakers had free rein at the podium Thursday, but not on social media. Melissa McGrath, Luna’s spokeswoman, took to Twitter to say the state held 20 public meetings in 2010 before adopting the math and English language arts standards. She also trotted out a link to a state Department of Education blog post debunking a series of Common Core “myths.”

The task force didn’t set out to spend April talking Common Core; the group drafted a list of eight questions for Idahoans to consider about the future of schools, and none referred to the standards. But then again, the task force’s sessions coincided with rising Republican opposition to Common Core and federal funding of the initiative. (Details from the Washington Post.)

What will the task force do with the Common Core testimony?

Richard Westerberg
Richard Westerberg, State Board of Education

“Certainly, we’ll consider that,” task force chairman Westerberg said Thursday night, after the formal listening session but before he was cornered by Common Core critics. “(But) this was not one of the things that was on the task force’s radar.”

Westerberg was the one task force member to attend all seven listening sessions. As he correctly pointed out, the Common Core testimony wasn’t unanimous. Some educators praised the standards, which are designed to encourage critical thinking and better prepare high school graduate for college and careers.

And what he didn’t say bears repeating. The Idaho Core Standards have considerable support in Idaho GOP circles, and on the task force. Luna, a task force member, has been working on the standards since his first term. The State Board approved them in 2010 (and Luna and Westerberg are among four State Board members on the task force). In 2011, the House and Senate education committees passed rules establishing Common Core standards (Senate Education was headed, then and now, by Coeur d’Alene Republican John Goedde, another task force member).

For the task force to revisit Common Core would represent a considerable reversal.

The task force will regroup, most likely on May 10 or May 17, to review testimony from the forums. From there, Westerberg said, the whole group may hold a couple more meetings this summer. The task force will break into smaller groups to draft legislation for the entire task force to review. The task force may send its recommendations to Gov. Butch Otter by August.

But some Idahoans may judge this group solely by what it does, or doesn’t do, with Common Core.