Will Common Core survive legislators?

Attempts to modify the education standards are possible this session.

IDAHO EDUCATION NEWSJanuary 3, 2014 

It was overshadowed by the Students Come First debate — by the marathon public hearings, packed committee meetings and Statehouse rallies centered around 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 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 when they meet beginning next week.

But the outcome will not necessarily change.

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 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.

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, who supports Common Core, 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.

In November, he and Senate Education Committee Chairman John Goedde wrote a letter to fellow legislators urging them to stay the course on Common Core.

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, he said: “It’s almost more political than it is education policy.”

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 than a law. It takes the approval of only 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 a 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 and secure 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.

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