COLUMBUS, Ohio — Ohio's push toward the multistate educational standards known as the Common Core has drawn pushback from some Ohioans and, in turn, a number of state legislators.
The strength of opposition in Ohio to the new standards, which the state school board adopted in 2010 and which are to be in all classrooms by the 2014-15 school year, is unclear.
But hesitance over the Common Core recently led to a small -- but potentially significant -- change in the budget plan coming out of the Ohio House this month. That hesitancy has also prompted State Rep. Gerald Stebelton, the Republican chairman of the House Education Committee, to plan a hearing on the Common Core soon, even though he counts himself as a supporter of the standards.
And Ohio Senate Education Committee Chairwoman Peggy Lehner, also a Republican, said colleagues are suddenly approaching her with questions about the Common Core.
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State Sen. Peggy Lehner
"We've got a lot of members who don't understand what the Common Core is, and they're hearing horror stories from constituents and they're confused," said Lehner, of Kettering, who started distributing a Common Core fact sheet to combat rumors driven by radio and television commentators.
The Common Core State Standards have been developed over the past several years -- and are still developing -- through the National Governors Association and the Council of Chief State School Officers.
Until now, the standards attracted attention mostly from educators and policy experts, but the Republican National Committee recently passed a resolution opposing the Common Core, complaining that it "creates and fits the country with a nationwide straitjacket on academic freedom and achievement."
National and state groups with Tea Party ties have also questioned the validity of the standards and the change in teaching styles they will bring, worried that Common Core will mean more federal control over classrooms.
Supporters of the Common Core, which has been adopted by more than 40 states, say that it raises learning standards and better prepares students for college and careers. Rather than exposing students to many concepts in a shallow way, they say, Common Core will have students working more deeply with fewer topics to help develop better critical-thinking skills.
Neither Stebelton, of Lancaster, nor State Rep. Ron Amstutz, the Wooster Republican who helped craft the House budget plan as chairman of the House Finance Committee, would single out any individual legislators as strong opponents of the Common Core, but they said there is general concern.
Amstutz said he pushed for the budget change because he and other legislators don't know enough about the Common Core to back it.
Gov. John Kasich's original budget proposal had included $10 million for districts for technology improvements, largely to help them prepare for the new online tests that students would take starting in 2015 under the Common Core.
Amstutz's plan left the money in the budget but not earmarked for the new tests.
"It wasn't because of opposition," Amstutz said. "It was a desire for more investigation. This is a program that I don't think the General Assembly has ever voted on to approve."
Asked whether the legislature would consider voting to pull out of the Common Core consortium of states, Amstutz said: "Until you understand better what it is, what further legislative action is indicated is still unknown."
The budget change alarmed supporters of the Common Core like Terry Ryan, vice president for Ohio programs and policy of the education-advocacy Fordham Institute, who worried that districts have already started preparing for the Common Core. They have changed their curriculum and trained teachers to work with the Common Core. A shift in direction now would damage their efforts, he said.
"What's been amazing is how fast this is happening and that you have House members debating whether the Common Core is the right way for the state to go," Ryan said.
Stebelton emphasized that all Republicans don't oppose the standards. He said he thinks opposition is based on "ignorance of the facts." Stebelton said he is calling his hearing, most likely in the next few weeks, to help legislators learn what the Common Core really involves.
"Some of the things we're hearing are just totally wrong, and we want to dispel them," he said.
Lehner, also a strong supporter of the standards, said she'll encourage senators to attend Stebelton's hearing.
President Barack Obama and the U.S. Department of Education have included many aspects of the Common Core in requirements for states and districts receiving money from Obama's Race to the Top school reform program.
In its recent vote, the Republican National Committee said it "recognizes the [Common Core State Standards] for what it is -- an inappropriate overreach to standardize and control the education of our children so they will conform to a preconceived 'normal.' "
But U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan said during his recent visit to Cleveland that the Common Core is an effort to increase the standards for students and schools to make the country more competitive internationally. He questioned why states might not be up to that challenge.
"If any state wants to dumb down their standards, they can," he said. "The goal is not common. The goal is high."
And Duncan said the Common Core started with governors, so it isn't a "top-down" plan coming from the administration, as some critics have claimed.
State school board member Todd Jones was not on the state board when it voted to adopt the Common Core in 2010, but he says he backs it because he agrees with Duncan that standards should be raised.
He also said that Common Core and Race to the Top money are intertwined, so much so that if Race to the Top states like Ohio back out of the standards, there will be a long battle with the federal government over returning that money.
Jones added that backing out "would be a statement that the status-quo is adequate for the future, and I don't think that's the case."
Kelly Kohls, president of the Springboro school board and founder of a new group called the Ohio School Boards Leadership Council, is one of the Ohio opponents. Kohls, the head of the Warren County Tea Party, organized a debate on the Common Core on April 16, pitting Jones and a Fordham representative in support of Common Core against three opponents, including Joy Pullman of the conservative Heartland Institute.
Kohls told The Plain Dealer that she considers the Common Core an "untried, untested, unproven set of standards" that are mediocre and less rigorous than those already in place in some states.
"We might have been sold something that's untested," Kohls said. She said Ohio doesn't need to throw out its existing standards, just to apply them more stringently.
State Superintendent Richard Ross, a supporter of the Common Core, said opposition often comes from people worried that their school district's scores will drop under the multistate tests. Rather than complaining, he said, they should try to improve so students do well on the tests.
And he said if someone complains about new standards, that person should look at the high numbers of students who enter college needing remedial courses as evidence that the current standards aren't working.
"Are your students getting into college without remediation?" Ross asked. "If yes, [the opponent] has a point. If not, he doesn't."