Will legislators keep Common Core?

Nampa Common Core
High school teachers in Nampa spent part of their summer break preparing to incorporate the new Idaho Core Standards into their daily lesson plans. The Legislature’s education committees gave the new standards the go-ahead in 2011.

It was overshadowed by the Students Come First debate — by the marathon public hearings, packed committee meetings and Statehouse rallies centered on Tom Luna’s education bills.

But in that same 2011 legislative session, the House and Senate education committees endorsed Common Core, and a new set of math and English language arts standards. While Luna hailed the move at the time, trumpeting it as a “great day for Idaho students,” the unanimous Jan. 24 Senate Education Committee vote went largely unnoticed. So too did a House Education Committee voice vote on Jan. 26.

Fast forward to 2014. The new Idaho Core Standards made their debut in the state’s classrooms this school year — but the controversy surrounding the standards has escalated. Common Core is likely to receive closer scrutiny from lawmakers in 2014.

But the outcome will not necessarily change.

Underground opposition?

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Sen. Steven Thayn, R-Emmett

Sen. Steven Thayn, R-Emmett, would seem to be a likely candidate to lead a belated charge to derail Common Core.

Thayn was a member of the House Education Committee that approved the standards three years ago. But since then, he has emerged as a vocal opponent.

In November, he co-wrote a letter with Madison School District Superintendent Geoffrey Thomas, saying districts should be allowed to opt in or opt out of the standards, which are being adopted in 45 states. Thayn also sides with Treasure Valley school superintendents who oppose Luna’s plans to field-test a Common Core assessment this spring — an online exam expected to take about eight hours to finish.

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Repealing Common Core is an option, but Thayn says he hasn’t written such a bill. He says he has five concerns with Common Core — from data collection to loss of state control to testing. “I plan on working on each issue separately and see if my concerns can be addressed before we decide to repeal,” Thayn said.

House Education Committee Chairman Reed DeMordaunt isn’t sure what to expect. He says he hasn’t heard any scuttlebutt about legislators planning to take a run at repealing the standards.

“Perhaps they’re not talking to me because they’re opposed to my position … and don’t want to show their hand,” said DeMordaunt, R-Eagle.

DeMordaunt is on record in support of the standards — and in November, he and Senate Education Committee Chairman John Goedde co-wrote a letter to fellow legislators, urging them to stay the course on Common Core. “Now is not the time to go backwards.”

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Rep. John Rusche, D-Lewiston

The underlying message was readily apparent: The committee chairmen were trying to defuse opposition from conservatives in their own party. Thayn is one prominent critic in the Legislature’s conservative wing, but he isn’t alone; Sen. Russ Fulcher, a Meridian Republican running against GOP Gov. Butch Otter, now says he opposes the standards he supported in 2011.

Leading up to the May 20 Republican primary, Common Core could be an issue that illustrates the “right vs. far right” tension within the GOP, said House Minority Leader John Rusche, D-Lewiston. The actual merits of the enhanced standards are a secondary issue. “It’s almost more political than it is education policy.”

Legislative approaches

DeMordaunt says he will give Common Core critics a chance to air their views.

He plans to invite Idahoans to submit their questions about the standards — then convene a panel of educators, parents and Education Department officials to discuss the facts and the misperceptions.

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Rep. Reed DeMordaunt, R-Eagle

Barring any “gotchas,” DeMordaunt expects the standards to remain intact. “(But) if something comes out that I’m not aware of, then let’s revisit that.”

Goedde has a somewhat different strategy. Since he says he hasn’t heard any specific concerns about the standards themselves, he is instead looking at refinements. He is working on a bill that could address one of Thayn’s myriad objections to Common Core: student data security. “I understand that concern,” said Goedde, R-Coeur d’Alene.

The repeal process

The 2011 Legislature — or, more specifically, the education committees — approved a rule establishing the Common Core standards. While an administrative rule ultimately carries the same weight as a law, it is considerably easier to pass a rule. It takes only the approval of one education committee to pass an education-related rule — although both the House and Senate committees endorsed the Common Core rule.

As with all rules, the Common Core rule never had to go to the House or Senate floor, which means most legislators never cast an up-or-down vote on the standards.

Repealing a rule is a more complicated process, facing a higher legislative hurdle. Opponents would have to write a resolution repealing the Idaho Core Standards rule, and get majority support on the House and Senate floors.

An anti-Common Core resolution would bypass one key supporter of the standards: Otter. Bills go to the governor’s desk for final approval, or a possible veto, but resolutions do not.

John Goedde, K-12 interim committee, 9.12.13
Sen. John Goedde, R-Coeur d’Alene

But any attempt to derail Common Core would likely go back through the same education committees that approved the standards three years ago. And that would mean going through DeMordaunt and Goedde. Like all committee chairs, DeMordaunt and Goedde have considerable power to schedule hearings on legislation, or scuttle ideas that they oppose.

And when it comes to keeping or ditching Common Core, their letter to legislators leaves no doubt about their preferences. “In the end, the Idaho Core Standards will give parents the peace of mind they have been seeking for years: the comfort that when their child walks across that stage and earns that high school diploma, it means they are truly ready to go on.”