Conservative lawmakers who are leading the fight to upend Arizona’s Common Core education standards are unlikely to achieve any victories this year, not as long as the governor who ushered in those standards still resides on the Ninth Floor.
But depending on who wins this year’s gubernatorial race, their chances may look better next year.
Republican candidates are split on the issue. Christine Jones, Al Melvin and Frank Riggs have vowed to do away with Common Core and replace it with new standards developed within Arizona. Scott Smith said he will keep the new standards in place, as has presumptive Democratic nominee Fred DuVal. And some, such as Ken Bennett and Doug Ducey, are extremely critical of Common Core, but won’t say whether they’ll replace it.
Common Core, a set of K-12 learning and testing standards adopted by 45 states, including Arizona, has become a cause célèbre among conservative Republicans. Opponents allege that Common Core is a “federal takeover” of states’ education systems and that it is an insidious mandate from the Obama administration. Critics sometimes make inflammatory accusations that it requires schools to use inappropriate curriculum, such as reading material that promotes homosexuality.
Supporters say the opposition is based mostly on misinformation. They point out that the Common Core standards are not mandatory, and that they were developed largely by states working within the framework of the National Governors Association. And states and school districts, supporters say, are still the ones that control curriculum, not the federal government.
The 2014 legislative session has already seen its share of skirmishes over Common Core. The Senate has given preliminary approval to two anti-Common Core bills, though a third aimed at eliminating the standards failed. And the issue threatens to derail budget negotiations, as opponents of the standards vow to deprive them of funding.
Andrew Wilder, a spokesman for Gov. Jan Brewer, said the governor’s position is clear on Arizona’s College and Career Ready Standards, as she renamed Common Core last year.
“She doesn’t weigh in on every bill that is winding through the Legislature until it’s going to hit her desk,” Wilder said, referring to the anti-Common Core bills. “But the message is very clear, that she supports Arizona standards and wants to see those remain in place.”
Troubled by Common Core
Some Republican gubernatorial candidates are dead-set against Common Core. Melvin, a state senator from SaddleBrooke, sponsored SB1310, which would have barred the State Board of Education from implementing the standards. The bill was defeated in the Senate.
Melvin, who describes himself as the “Tea Party candidate” for governor, has made opposition to Common Core a major plank of his campaign. He often vows to “pull Common Core out by its roots,” as Indiana is on the verge of doing.
Jones, a former executive for the Internet hosting giant GoDaddy, is also strongly against Common Core. Jones would not speak with the Arizona Capitol Times for this story, but in a statement provided by a campaign spokeswoman, Jones said she would create new academic standards to replace Common Core.
“I am opposed to the heavy hand of the federal government dictating school curriculum. Nothing in the Constitution affords the federal government the right to speak into education standards. Policy dictated from a bureaucrat in Washington, D.C., who has never even stepped foot in an Arizona classroom, makes no sense,” Jones said in a statement emailed to the Capitol Times.
Campaign spokeswoman Anna Haberlein said Jones will unveil her own plans for new academic standards during the campaign.
Riggs, too, has vowed to uproot Common Core, which his campaign said was part of his effort to fight the “Obamanization” of Arizona. The former California congressman said he would use his executive authority to rescind Arizona’s participation in the standards and then convene a summit to solicit Arizonans’ advice on what kinds of standards the state should adopt.
Riggs said he’s concerned that federal funding is tied to the adoption of the standards. He worries that they will have a negative impact on school choice, and does not believe Arizonans had enough input into the crafting of the Common Core standards.
“Curriculum decisions are best made at the local level. And I don’t want to see anything that would possibly interfere with the rights of parental school choice,” Riggs said. “My real concern is that not only … is it an infringement upon state and local government responsibility for providing a high-quality public education to all students, but the idea that it would be tied to federal money.”
The only major Republican gubernatorial candidate to pledge support for the standards is Smith, the mayor of Mesa. Smith said the debate over Common Core has fallen prey to distractions and misinformation that obscure the most important issue, which is implementing high academic standards that will prepare Arizona’s children for the future.
“It’s our responsibility to set the bar high,” Smith said. “Whether it’s called Common Core or un-Common Core or whatever it’s called, I like the fact that states have created these standards for which our students can be judged against a national group of people.”
Smith said he sees no point in crafting new standards at the state level to replace Common Core. The state has been down that road – in 1999, the state implemented Arizona’s Instrument to Measure Standards (AIMS) to measure its new academic standards – and it didn’t work so well, Smith said.
“We did create our own standards,” Smith said. “And then we dummied them down. And that is the challenge we face when we say we’re going to go it alone, because the pressures will be such that you will not maintain high standards.”
DuVal, who running virtually unopposed for the Democratic nomination, said he supports the Common Core standards and said much of the criticism is based on misinformation.
“That’s just ideology over effectiveness,” DuVal said.
Ducey said he is “troubled” by Common Core, and opposes any funding system that “ties us to Washington, D.C.”
“I think that higher standards and higher expectations are a good idea. But federal mandates on education are a bad idea, and Washington, D.C., tying funding to educational mandates is a very bad idea,” Ducey said. “I think there’s been some purchasing of obedience through waivers of No Child Left Behind and tying funding to Race to the Top, and that’s very troubling. And I don’t want to promote or continue that type of funding system in Arizona.”
But Ducey, the state treasurer, would not say whether would keep or scrap Common Core if he’s elected governor.
“This is a discussion about more than just standards. And I’m not going to get pigeonholed into just talking about standards,” he said.
Bennett took a similar position, though he said he’d be open to the elimination of Common Core standards. The secretary of state and former Senate president has said he doesn’t like the testing for the standards – Arizona is considering the nationally developed Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers (PARCC) test – and that Arizona’s standards should be determined by Arizonans.
Bennett, who served on the State Board of Education at the time AIMS was adopted, said that’s what Arizona did the last time it adopted new academic standards, and should have done the same this time around.
“I support standards. But the last time we adopted standards in Arizona, we got over 1,000 Arizonans together,” Bennett said. “And then we made sure that they compared favorably with the standards that other states had adopted.”
If elected governor, Bennett said he would convene teachers, parents and stakeholders together to examine Arizona’s standards and determine whether Common Core was adequate. If that panel recommended the full or partial elimination of Common Core, he said, he would develop something new.
“I don’t think you get rid of something until you know what you’re going to replace it with,” he said.
Not federally mandated
Supporters of Common Core say much of the opposition is based on misinformation and mischaracterizations.
Stacey Morley, a lobbyist for the Arizona Department of Education, said that despite a perception among some critics, Common Core standards are neither federally mandated nor federally created.
The Department of Education emphasizes that the standards were crafted by officials from numerous states under the aegis of the National Governors Association and the Council of State School Officers. That effort did not include the use of any federal money, the department said.
Morley said the adoption of the standards is not mandated by the federal government either. The federal government has mandated that states use some kind of standards for at least 20 years, she said, but has not mandated any specific standards.
And while the Race to the Top program made “college and career ready” standards, those do not necessarily have to be the Common Core, according to the department.
“They’re not actual mandates. We don’t have to do it,” Morley said. “They’re basically saying, if you want this money, you can do it. It’s a conditional funding thing. That’s how they incentivize all behavior from the states.”
Morley said some states that have the resources to develop their own standards, such as Texas, have done so. Other states’ decision to work on new standards together was based on resource issues more than anything, Morley said.
Yuma County schools Superintendent Thomas Tyree, who serves as president of the State Board of Education, noted that the push for higher standards began in 2006, before Obama was elected president and before there was a Race to the Top program. He did say, however, that Race to the Top helped move the effort forward.
And while critics say Common Core amounts to a federal takeover of education and federal control over curriculum, Tyree said the curriculum will still be determined by school districts, as it always has been.
“The biggest concern and the distinction I think we need to make in terms of having this discussion … is drawing the distinction between standards and curriculum,” Tyree said.
Impact on the election: Are voters paying attention?
While Common Core has become a hot-button issue with grassroots conservatives, it remains to be seen what kind of impact it will have on the governor’s race.
Republican campaign consultant Chris Baker said any impact will be marginal.
“I think there will be efforts by candidates to use it as an issue to distinguish themselves from others in the race. But I’m not quite sure that voters are nearly as upset or worked up about Common Core as some people in conservative circles think they are,” he said.
Nathan Sproul, also a GOP campaign consultant, said Common Core won’t be a major issue, and predicted it could only swing 1 percent to 3 percent of the primary electorate. But in a primary between six or seven candidates, the Republican nominee may win that race with under 30 percent, Sproul said, and that may be enough to swing the race.
“Because we haven’t actually seen an election run where it’s an issue, it’s hard to gauge how effective it would be. But I definitely think it has that potential among the most passionate segment of the electorate,” Sproul said.
Tom Jenney, who runs the Arizona chapter of the national conservative group Americans for Prosperity, which is strongly opposed to Common Core, predicted that the issue will play a sizeable role in the Republican primary for governor.
“I think for a lot of grassroots conservatives out there, I wouldn’t say it’s a single issue matter for them, but it’s among a very small portfolio of very important issues,” Jenney said.
The same may hold true for Common Core supporters, especially chambers of commerce and others in the business community.
Lobbyist Marc Osborn, who chairs the Greater Phoenix Chamber of Commerce’s Workforce Committee, said the business community will play close attention to where candidates stand on the issue. Osborn said the Republican frontrunners are generally all considered pro-business and have similar policies on issues like taxes and regulations.
Common Core could end up as a barometer of how responsive candidates are to the business community’s education agenda, he said.
“I think business folks are going to be looking at that dividing line,” Osborn said. “When you get right down to it, for a lot of folks in the business community, if they get to a general election, if you have someone who’s waffled on Common Core versus someone who’s more aggressive on it, that could lead people one way or the other.”
Glenn Hamer, president and CEO of Arizona Chamber of Commerce and Industry, said his organization doesn’t have litmus tests for candidates on issues, including Common Core. But Hamer said the chamber is committed to keeping the standards in place.
Ultimately, Hamer said he isn’t concerned that the next governor will roll back those standards.
“There’s no way at the business community that we’re going to allow our state to go backwards,” Hamer said.