Copyright © 2015 Albuquerque Journal
WASHINGTON – Some Republican governors across the country are bailing out on national Common Core public education standards, but Gov. Susana Martinez and her education chief remain firmly committed to the controversial program in New Mexico.
Hanna Skandera, New Mexico’s secretary of education, told the Journal last week that she and Martinez, a Republican in her second term, still view Common Core as the best way to measure student achievement in public schools.
“Bottom line, it’s about the opportunity to raise our expectations for every student in our state,” Skandera said in an interview. “We believe in high standards, and we believe in setting our students up so they have the right skills, knowledge and the opportunity to succeed. We think these standards are the right ones for achieving our goals.”
The standards introduced in New Mexico five years ago and backed by President Barack Obama’s administration measure student proficiency in mathematics, language arts and literacy. The learning goals outline the basics of what a student should know and be able to accomplish academically at the end of each grade from kindergarten through high school.
Common Core has become a public policy lightning rod among critics on the left and right as students, teachers, parents and elected officials from both parties bemoan the testing associated with it and question if the exams detract from traditional classroom instruction. Some supporters contend that the new testing is less demanding than what was in place before New Mexico adopted Common Core in 2010. Governors and education experts designed the standards, but the curriculum is devised locally.
Many conservatives have criticized Common Core as federal intrusion, because the Obama administration offers financial assistance to states that adopt the standards.
More than 40 states, including New Mexico, initially signed on, but leaders across the country have had second thoughts. Late last month, New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie became the latest high-profile Republican to move his state away from Common Core.
In a May 28 speech at Burlington County College in New Jersey, Christie said Common Core has sown “confusion and frustration” among parents and put “distance between our teachers and the communities where they work.”
“Instead of solving problems in our classrooms, it is creating new ones,” said Christie, a possible 2016 presidential candidate.
Some other Republican governors with eyes on a 2016 White House bid – including Scott Walker of Wisconsin, Bobby Jindal of Louisiana and Rick Perry of Texas – oppose Common Core, even if they support education standards.
Republican Gov. John Kasich of Ohio, who is running for president, remains committed to Common Core, as does former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush, who is planning a June 15 presidential campaign announcement. Martinez has not expressed any interest in a bid for national office but is frequently touted as a possible vice presidential running mate.
It isn’t only Republicans who oppose Common Core. Last year, state Sen. Linda Lopez, a Democrat, introduced legislation to withdraw New Mexico from Common Core and its related tests, called PARCC. The legislation failed, but Lopez remains convinced Common Core is wrong for New Mexico. She told the Journal that the tests are too narrow in scope and not in sync with the needs and challenges of New Mexico students.
“I firmly believe New Mexico should be looking at this much more closely before we continue to move forward,” she said. “It’s a lack of (teacher) training, a lack of information outreach to parents and families. The Common Core really doesn’t include many different areas of study with regard to arts, history, local history … the list is long.”
Lopez also said the tests don’t take into account regional factors.
“A lot of our testing is developed on the east side of the Mississippi, and what you do on the east side of the Mississippi doesn’t necessarily correlate with what we have on the west side,” she said.
Meanwhile, Hillary Clinton, the front-runner for the Democratic presidential nomination, has defended Common Core in her limited public statements about the program.
“One way to help give kids opportunities is with some level of standardization in education, like the Common Core, so that there wouldn’t be two tiers of education,” Clinton told Bloomberg Politics in mid-April, according to background information provided to the Journal by her campaign.
Clinton has also said the idea of Common Core was to “come up with a core of learning that we might expect students to achieve across our country, no matter what kind of school district they were in, no matter how poor their family was, that there wouldn’t be two tiers of education.”
Luis Valentino, recently named the new superintendent of Albuquerque Public Schools, declined to comment for this article, explaining through a spokeswoman that he is still “on the clock” wrapping up work with the San Francisco school district in California.
But Valentino told APS board members in April that he backs Common Core. Valentino has said standardized tests are needed for schools to determine if they are improving, but he also conceded that tests such as the controversial PARCC exam adopted as New Mexico’s statewide test this year to replace the Standards Based Assessment exam, or SBA, aren’t perfect and that problems should be addressed.
Martin West, an associate professor at the Harvard School of Education and a senior fellow in education policy at the Brookings Institution, said public support for Common Core nationally fell precipitously between 2013 and 2014.
West is executive editor of Education Next, a journal that has polled extensively on Common Core.
From 2013 to 2014, public support for Common Core fell from 65 percent to 53 percent, West said, adding that Education Next is polling on the issue again this month.
“A 12 percent change in support is actually the largest change on any issue year-over-year that we have seen in 10 years of polling on public education policy,” West said. “Public opinion on most issues, including education issues, tends to be fairly stable from one year to the next, so this was a big change.”
Republican poll participants drove most of the drop in support, he said.
“Support among Democrats was steady, (falling from) 64 percent to 63 percent, but support dropped sharply among Republicans 57 percent to 43 percent,” he said, noting poll questions that mentioned Common Core specifically, and its association with the Obama administration, tended to result in more critical responses from Republicans. West said poll questions that asked about general support for national education standards received more favorable responses from Republicans than those that mentioned Common Core by name.
“It really does appear to be a branding problem in that there is quite broad support for common standards,” he said. “Governors may find a way to pull out of the Common Core in a formal sense while replacing it with a set of standards that looks very similar. Arguably, that is what Scott Walker did in Wisconsin.”
This summer, the U.S. Senate is expected to debate a long-awaited rewrite of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act. The most recent version of the act, dubbed “No Child Left Behind” and created during the George W. Bush administration, has been expired for seven years.
The Senate education committee, led by Lamar Alexander, a moderate Tennessee Republican, recently unanimously approved a new version of the law called the Every Child Achieves Act of 2015.
Language currently included in the bipartisan legislation would prohibit the federal government from offering states incentives to adopt specific education standards, such as Common Core. It would retain a requirement for state standards, but would not dictate what they should be.
Sen. Tom Udall, D-N.M., said he’s encouraged by the bill and generally supports Common Core.
“I really appreciate the states and the governors taking leadership on this to help students nationwide,” he said in a Journal interview. “I think it’s something that has needed to be done. I support New Mexico’s participation.”
Sen. Martin Heinrich, D-N.M., was less enthusiastic about Common Core.
“Well-intentioned standards do no good if their implementation falls flat,” Heinrich said in a statement. “Unfortunately, this is the fate from which Common Core has suffered. Improving our education system should be a top priority for all public officials. After all, it’s the surest way to rescue New Mexico’s struggling economy. But the proliferation of mandatory standardized tests has left our students with too little instruction time and has been devastating to teacher morale. As we look to fix ‘No Child Left Behind’ at the federal level and as states look to their own reforms, we should focus on increasing instruction time, and implement evaluations that are student-centric and growth-based.”