High standards

Common Core moves forward as opponents take aim
By ZACK ANCHORS  |  January 23, 2014

Two years after Governor Paul LePage signed into law Maine’s commitment to Common Core State Standards (CCSS), growing opposition from several camps threatens to derail the federal education reform initiative. Maine schools are fully implementing the learning standards throughout the 2013-2014 school year, but opponents intend to place a referendum question on the state ballot this November that would reverse that process. If they are successful, Maine would be the first state in which voters decide the fate of CCSS.

Common Core standards are designed to ensure that K-12 students in different states learn the same basic concepts in math and language arts. The initiative originates from concerns that American students are falling behind students in other nations, leaving the United States ill-prepared to compete effectively in a global economy. The standards were written by officials at the National Governor’s Association and the Council of Chief State School Officers and were adopted by the Maine legislature in 2011. Forty-four other states have adopted the standards, which are strongly supported by President Barack Obama.

In the late 1990s Maine began developing its own educational standards, which CCSS is now replacing for the subjects of math and language arts. The new standards are designed to cover fewer topics in greater depth at each grade level. The state Department of Education notes the standards will push teachers to focus on problem solving and integrating “higher-order thinking with learning about content.”

CCSS has met skepticism from many quarters, including from some educators. Criticisms include claims that the standards are not rigorous enough; that they will expand the role of standardized testing; and that they will lead to narrower curriculums that cut or minimize important topics and materials, such as classic literature. Some opponents also criticize the influential role of business leaders in development of standards, including Bill Gates, whose foundation has provided substantial financial support for CCSS. The role of the federal government is also a point of contention. States are not mandated to adopt CCSS, but the Obama administration has used its Race to the Top grant program to tie millions of dollars in funding to its adoption.

The strongest opposition to CCSS, though, has come from Tea Party conservatives, who view the standards as another effort by Obama, like the Affordable Care Act, to increase the power of federal government. Republican Senator Marc Rubio, for instance, recently accused Obama of using Common Core to “turn the Department of Education into what is effectively a national school board.”

In Maine, Heidi Sampson, a member of the State Board of Education and Maine Charter School Commission, co-founded a group called No Common Core Maine, which has been holding forums throughout the state to inform Mainers of the alleged threat posed by CCSS. The group partnered on its push for a state referendum to repeal CCSS with the conservative Maine Equal Rights Center, which fought against same-sex marriage in 2012. Erick Bennett, the founder of the constitutional rights group, earned national mockery last year for his convoluted defense of a 2003 domestic abuse conviction after announcing his candidacy against US Senator Susan Collins in the 2014 Republican primaries. Maine opponents of CCSS have until February 3 to gather 57,277 signatures in order to place their referendum on the November 4 ballot. Samson confirmed this week that the effort is moving forward, but could not provide details on the number of signatures gathered so far. Bennett did not respond to a request for an update.

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