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Common Core Compromise Would Water Down Controversial Education Standards in S.C.

Education Candidates Weigh In on Senate Bill

By Porter Barron Jr.
Wednesday, March 19, 2014
Republican members of the Senate Education Committee had hoped to appease very vocal conservative activists, who are demanding immediate repeal of the Common Core K-12 Academic Standards, without upending the coming school year, given that school districts have already devoted considerable resources to implementing them.

Interestingly, the now-gutted bill is raising those compromise-averse activists’ hopes if not drawing their support.

S. 300, authored by Sen. Larry Grooms (R-Berkeley), began as a ban on Common Core, plain and simple. Now, to avoid wasting the aforementioned resources and inflicting chaos on classrooms already entrenched in Common Core, the bill is a thoroughly amended phasing-out.

Because the current version of S. 300 hadn’t been made public yet, a staff member of the Senate Education Committee walked Free Times through the compromise. The first section prohibits South Carolina from sending individual student data to Washington, D.C., a concern that the staffer said “we heard buckets about” but that an education policy expert described as a bugaboo, saying, “We never have nor never intended to send student-level data to D.C. under any scenario.”

The second major provision adopts the gist of a separate piece of legislation also provoked by Common Core, S. 888 by Sen. Chip Campsen (R-Charleston), which requires that any academic standards not developed by the S.C. Department of Education be approved by the General Assembly.

The bill goes on to withdraw South Carolina from the Smarter Balance testing consortium, a group promoted by the Obama administration, and do away with high school exit exams beginning with 2015’s graduates. There is also language that will allow past graduates who did not receive diplomas because they flunked the exams to petition their old school districts for diplomas up until Dec. 21, 2015. This testing stuff is relevant because it’s how states participating in Common Core, of which South Carolina is one of 45, had agreed to evaluate their efforts.

But there is no mention of repeal, only the same 7-year cyclical review that South Carolina’s academic standards have always undergone, with room for changes only then. S. 300 says the next review must begin no later than July 1, 2018, and there is language clarifying that whatever standards are currently in place (i.e. Common Core standards in English and math and South Carolina’s homegrown in other subjects) shall remain in place.

For the crowded field of candidates jockeying to succeed Superintendent of Education Mick Zais after November’s elections, it’s become a one-issue race. Common Core must be addressed before all else, and positions run along party lines — with all eight Republican candidates opposing Common Core to varying degrees and the lone Democrat, Montrio Belton, supporting its “quality standards that speak to what 21st century students should be doing in the classroom.”

Among the Republicans, leading the rhetorical charge against Common Core is Sheri Few, founder of the socially conservative South Carolina Parents Involved in Education. At an anti-Common Core rally in February, she urged activists to grimace and support the compromise being hammered out by GOP senators.

“They do not want to compromise either, but they know the Senate system and they know how to get a bill to the floor and that is their goal,” Few said.

She elaborated on her thinking Monday: “The Senate education leadership insisted they had to water down S. 300 in order to get it out of committee and to the floor for full and open debate. While we do not like the amendments because they appeal the repeal language, we are pleased that S. 300 was passed out of committee. Now we need S. 300 to be set for Special Order so that it will come up for a vote before budget priorities kick in. Once S. 300 achieves Special Order status, we will urge senators to reject the committee amendments and vote for a clean repeal bill.”

Meanwhile, candidates Gary Burgess and Elizabeth Moffly basically agree with each other. They argue for full, immediate repeal of Common Core. [Update: This sentence has been edited to clarify that Burgess and Moffly have never supported any compromise on Common Core.]

Burgess says, “I’ve been [district] superintendent of schools. Here’s what I do know: We repeal stuff and we implement stuff at the last minute. It’s not going to throw anyone into chaos. People are making millions of dollars every two or three years changing the standards or changing the tests.”

As for Moffly, a Charleston County School Board member, she advocates a wholesale overhaul of academic standards and course diversification that would make technical and special needs diplomas available to students not interested in attending a 4-year college.

On the more moderate end of the GOP spectrum are Molly Spearman, director of the South Carolina Association of School Administrators, and University of South Carolina math professor Don Jordan. Both have been advocates of compromise when it comes to Common Core, keeping what works and jettisoning the rest, with an eye on not wasting taxpayer dollars already spent.

The main thing, Spearman says, is settling people’s concerns about Common Core so that South Carolina educators can move forward.

As for the other three GOP candidates — Meka Childs, Amy Cofield and Sally Atwater — they either did not respond to Free Times’ request for comment or did not provide contact details on their campaign website.

As for Gov. Nikki Haley, when asked about Common Core at a press conference last week, she said she opposes the standards but was noncommittal about any proposed legislation.

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