Fulcher’s Common Core challenge

Russ Fulcher says he changed his mind about Common Core for a simple reason: “It didn’t come as advertised.”

Fulcher said he thought the math and English language arts standards would etch local control into Idaho education. But he now believes the opposite has occurred. Even though State Department of Education staffers have been involved in developing the Smarter Balanced Assessment Consortium exams, Fulcher doesn’t believe Idaho had significant input in writing the Common Core-aligned exams, and Idaho teachers will have no choice but to teach to the test.

Russ Fulcher
Sen. Russ Fulcher

So as Fulcher travels the state on his gubernatorial campaign, the Republican state senator from Meridian is having to explain why he now opposes standards he supported in the Senate Education Committee in 2011. “I’m not embarrassed by that at all.”

Common Core is not a centerpiece issue in Fulcher’s run. But it provides one distinction between Fulcher and incumbent Butch Otter — the two main candidates in a GOP primary also featuring perennial candidates Walt Bayes and Harley Brown.

A Common Core outlier?

Fulcher is a convert to the Idaho Core Standards opposition; Otter has remained a steadfast supporter. He says the standards will bring more rigor into the state’s schools. “Idaho Core Standards reflect the development of public policy as the Founders envisioned it — driven by the states as the laboratories of the republic,” Otter wrote in a March 22 guest opinion in the Idaho Statesman.

Otter Press Club, 2.10.14
Gov. Butch Otter

Otter isn’t alone.

Last August, 30 of the 31 members of Otter’s education reform task force voted in favor of the standards. The vote reflects a breadth of support — from the Legislature’s two education committee chairs, from education stakeholder groups, and from the business community.

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A.J. Balukoff — the longtime Boise School Board member who faces only token opposition in the Democratic gubernatorial primary — also supports the standards. “The Idaho Core Standards help create thinkers, not just students who test well because they’ve memorized information,” Balukoff wrote in a guest opinion in the Statesman Sunday.

Fulcher may be a Common Core outlier, but he is promising a bold move.

Balukoff announcement
A.J. Balukoff

If elected, he says he would push for a repeal — following the lead of Indiana Gov. Mike Pence, who signed an unprecedented state law last month to repeal the standards.

That pledge comes after a low-key 2014 session, at least where Common Core is concerned. A handful of senators voted against two components of the seven-piece K-12 budget, bills that included professional development money for Idaho Core Standards training; Fulcher was among the opponents. Several Senate Education members, including Fulcher, grilled state staffers over the SBAC during a heated Jan. 29 hearing — but their opposition never galvanized into a bill.

If Fulcher is serious about repealing Common Core, why didn’t he press the issue during the 2014 session?

Repeal is a complicated matter, he said in an interview last week. It would have required several bills to peel back the standards, approved by the Legislature’s education committees, in the form of an administrative rule.

Fulcher realizes the process would be no less complicated in 2015 — if he has the chance to preside over a repeal as governor. And he downplays the potential political resistance to repeal. He thinks a state-based standard could find broad support, especially if Idaho follows Indiana’s lead and adopts more stringent standards in the “STEM” disciplines of science, technology, engineering and math.

“I don’t want to be the same as every state. I want to be better,” he said. “The standard may be too low.”

A states’ rights challenge

Fulcher’s opposition to Common Core fits into a larger campaign theme. Playing to the GOP conservative faction, Fulcher complains of federal government overreach and paints Otter, an eight-year incumbent, as a willing accomplice. Fulcher’s centerpiece issue is the state’s health insurance exchange, which Fulcher paints as an ill-advised step to support the federal health care law.

But much like Common Core, the health exchange issue generated few ripples during the 2014 session. “The anti-Obama sentiment on those two issues just didn’t come through,” said Jim Weatherby, a retired Boise State University professor and a longtime Idaho political observer.

During the 2014 session, Fulcher remained a member of the Senate GOP’s leadership team, even while mobilizing his campaign against Otter. Perhaps for that reason, said Weatherby, Fulcher seemed relatively quiet during the 2014 session. Now, five weeks removed from the GOP primary, Fulcher would seem to have a big challenge on his hands.

“He needs to develop some compelling narrative to defeat the current governor,” Weatherby said.

Task force politics

Common Core is only one of 20 recommendations from the Otter education task force. On the rest of the package, the distinctions between Otter and Fulcher become more murky.

“The diverse membership effectively put aside politics and personal agendas in developing  recommendations that I enthusiastically endorse,” Otter said during his Jan. 6 state of the state address. “I believe that implementing them will substantially move our policies in the  right direction for Idaho’s future.”

Fulcher is more muted about the plan — which includes everything from a new teacher salary schedule to a renewed push for classroom technology, and carries an overall price tag of $350 million or more. “I don’t think they’re necessarily bad,” he said, “but the whole thing hinges on more money, more money.”

And for Fulcher, the key to funding any of the task force’s recommendations is building the state’s tax base — an objective he believes the state can achieve by opening up more of its public lands to logging, natural gas exploration, and other purposes.

The task force’s progress may not factor much in the May 20 GOP primary. The general election may be another matter.

Balukoff says the 2014-15 K-12 budget does not move quickly enough to implement the task force recommendations. (Otter praised, and ultimately signed, the 5.1 percent spending increase.) And Michael Lanza, Balukoff’s education adviser and campaign spokesman, was pulled off a committee assigned to follow up on the task force’s work.

“You can imagine my surprise when I got word that Mike had been uninvited from the Education Task Force for taking the job on my campaign,” Balukoff said in a fundraising email this week. “Punishing Idahoans for having a difference of opinion or belonging to a different party is wrong.”

Read more: Russ Fulcher’s Idaho Statesman guest opinion on Common Core.