Federal lawsuit targets Idaho Core Standards, SBAC exam

(UPDATED, 7:05 p.m., with comments from State Board of Education, State Department of Education.)

The debate over Idaho Core Standards could be headed to a federal courtroom — with a focus on the tests aligned to the new standards.

On Monday, a group of 10 plaintiffs filed a complaint in U.S. District Court, seeking to “cease implementation” of Idaho’s version of Common Core and throw out the state’s testing contract with the Smarter Balanced Assessment Consortium.

Common Core hearing
Lawmakers and Idahoans pack a Statehouse committee room for a January 2014 hearing on Idaho Core Standards. With a lawsuit filed Monday, the Common Core debate could shift to a federal courtroom.

SBAC has administered Common Core exams in 18 states, including Idaho. The SBAC test administered earlier this year will be the first that is used to measure student growth and school performance. However, Idaho’s relationship with SBAC goes back several years; Idaho is a governing state in the multistate testing program.

The lawsuit contends that SBAC is “an unlawful interstate compact” never approved by Congress.

“Idaho taxpayers have and will suffer irreparable harm if taxpayer funds continue to be disbursed by the state of Idaho to support SBAC,” according to the 36-page complaint.

The lawsuit refocuses the simmering debate over the Idaho Core Standards in math and English language arts, and the tests designed to measure students’ command of the standards. But the complaint also cuts along a lingering fault line in Idaho’s Republican Party, pitting conservative upstarts against the GOP establishment.

The plaintiffs’ lawyers are Bryan Smith of Idaho Falls, who tried unsuccessfully to oust 2nd Congressional District incumbent Mike Simpson in the May 2014 GOP primary; and Christ Troupis of Eagle, who lost to incumbent Attorney General Lawrence Wasden in that same primary.

One of the plaintiffs is Brent Regan, chairman of the board of the conservative Idaho Freedom Foundation. The foundation is also helping to underwrite the cost of the lawsuit, Troupis told Betsy Russell of the Spokane-Spokesman Review Tuesday. A second conservative group, the Idaho Business Alliance, is funding the lawsuit, calling Common Core and the SBAC a step “to create a national curriculum.”

Defendants include Gov. Butch Otter, state schools superintendent Sherri Ybarra and Don Soltman, an Otter appointee who serves as president of the State Board of Education.

Ybarra spokesman Jeff Church declined comment on the lawsuit, saying the State Department of Education has not had a chance to review the lawsuit with its deputy attorney general. The State Board has not been served with the lawsuit and had no comment, State Board spokesman Blake Youde said Tuesday evening.

Otter’s office declined comment.

Monday’s lawsuit comes more than two years after Idaho schools began using the Common Core standards. The standards have enjoyed powerful and broad-based support — from Otter, key legislators and prominent education and business groups. However, critics have urged the state to dump the standards, calling them a federal encroachment into state education policy.

At its apex, 46 states adopted some form of Common Core standards. Since then, five states have decided to opt out of Common Core in favor of new standards, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures.

SBAC is one of two multistate compacts administering the Common Core exams. Idaho field-tested the SBAC exams in the spring of 2014, before the full implementation earlier this year. Student scores beat projections, but the rollout of the test proved rocky and was plagued by delayed results.

While the Common Core standards themselves have enjoyed widespread support, backing for the SBAC exams has been spotty.

Madison School District Superintendent Geoffrey Thomas, a Common Core opponent, at first refused to administer the tests this spring. Thomas and trustees later relented — partly after direct lobbying from Otter.

The Boise School District is leading a push to replace the SBAC, saying the test takes too much time and yields limited results.

In a July interview with Idaho Education News, Ybarra voiced concerns of her own. “Society is really tired of the ‘shut up and sit down’ mentality and the one-size-fits-all approach and that the SBAC is the only deciding factor in success for students.”