Politics vs. Sound Policy: What is best for Utah students?

Utah State Board of Education Member Kim Burningham
Kim Burningham, Utah State Board of Education, District 5

Uah Governor Gary HerbertWhen opponents of the Core surfaced last year, blaming their adoption in Utah on a socialist plot, the Governor was quick to denounce these claims, saying the Common Core is not a “socialistic program foisted upon us by the federal government.”

Oh, how quickly opinions change when election season is upon us. This apparent hypocrisy is all too evident in the introduction and swift progress at the Utah State Capitol of SCR13 (Concurrent Resolution on Common Core Standards). This resolution was released to the public only last week, well after the time when most bills are usually unveiled. Since then, two new versions of the bill have been adopted and this morning it’s already passed the Senate. Though only one day remains in the session after today, the momentum this bill is enjoying could easily carry it through the House before the session ends at midnight on Thursday.

The adopted second substitute of SCR13 that’s moving forward now is a resolution of the Utah Legislature and Governor that asks the Utah State Board of Education to reconsider its unanimous decision to join dozens of other states in adopting the Common Core State Standards in 2010.

These more rigorous academic standards for Math and English Language Arts, now known as the Utah Core Standards, set clear goals for grade-level progress so students, parents and teachers all understand what is expected of students. Utah educators and subject-area experts had a seat at the table in developing these standards, and public meetings were held seeking input prior to their adoption.

The Utah Core Standards are now being phased in to our schools in a carefully planned, statewide effort, which includes a significant amount of professional development for teachers. Participants in these Core Academies have expressed gratitude for the opportunity to receive additional training and excitement over the prospect of improved instruction and learning in their classrooms. This professional development has also placed Utah ahead of the curve in implementing these standards and has become a model for this type of training, which is so crucial to successfully rolling out a new set of state standards.

I am troubled to see the Governor now signing on to this Concurrent Resolution in a clear reversal of position, asking the Board to reconsider a decision it made a year and a half ago.

Utah’s interest in helping to develop the Common Core Standards came about after Utah’s previous math core was found wanting, receiving a D-grade from a prominent conservative think-tank, the Fordham Foundation, in 2007. In comparison, this organization has given the Common Core Math Standards an A-minus.

Since they were first introduced in 2009, the Common Core Standards received the support of the Governor’s Education Excellence Commission, the Commissioner of Higher Education, the Lieutenant Governor and Governor Gary Herbert, himself.

When opponents of the Core surfaced last year, blaming their adoption in Utah on a socialist plot, the Governor was quick to denounce these claims, saying the Common Core is not a “socialistic program foisted upon us by the federal government.” And Governor Herbert was quoted as recently as Feb. 26 – the day before the Concurrent Resolution urging reconsideration of the Common Core was made public — explaining the benefits of adopting the Common Core:

“Utah’s Common Core is a state-initiated, state-designed effort to raise the bar on public education outcomes and ensure Utah’s school children can compete post-graduation in a global economy,” the Governor told the Provo Daily Herald. “We owe it to our kids to demand higher standards and more competitive outcomes.”

I am troubled to see the Governor now signing on to this Concurrent Resolution in a clear reversal of position, asking the Board to reconsider a decision it made a year and a half ago. Typically, a parliamentary request for reconsideration is an indication by the sponsors and supporters they do not believe the original decision was correct. But clearly Utah’s Governor had previously supported the Core.

So why this sudden change of heart?

One wonders if the Governor’s puzzling actions in joining in this resolution are due to the fact that Utah’s Republican caucuses are just around the corner. With a vocal minority opposing the Common Core with virulent and preposterous conspiracy theories (see “Comon Core goals: ‘Federal takeover’ or an opportunity for Utah schools?”, Salt Lake Tribune, February 20, 2012), I propose a possible answer: He fears for his job. Is political fear trumping good policy?

Kim Burningham represents District 5 on the Utah State Board of Education. Prior to joining the State Board of Education, he served for 15 years in the Utah Legislature and was an educator for many years, twice named Outstanding Teaching of the Year.

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6 comments to Politics vs. Sound Policy: What is best for Utah students?

  • Matt Piccolo

    Thanks for your thoughts on this, Mr. Burningham. I can’t speak to the politics involved with this issue, but I do think we need to address the reality that the federal government is in the process of commandeering the Common Core, which would open it up to all manner of influences, some of which could deplete the quality of the standards and lead to unwanted regulatory strings.

    As part of its effort, DOE and other stakeholders behind the Common Core want to align standards, curriculum, assessments, instructional materials, and on and on with the Core (see http://www.pioneerinstitute.org/pdf/120208_RoadNationalCurriculum.pdf). Not only would this potentially open up Utah schools to values inimical to the people of this state, but it would also lead to a nation of mediocrity and a lack of diversity as we would all be expected to learn the exact same things in the same way.

    I think most of the concerns related to Common Core are not what the standards themselves are now (though concerns in that regard are not wanting), but where this is all heading. If the standards really are good for Utah as written now, then perhaps we should adopt them but remain otherwise independent so we can do with them what we want. We’ve learned from experience (NCLB) that federal education programs restrict our ability to do what’s best for Utah, so we should do all we can to remain independent from them.

    • Elizabeth Ziegler

      Mr. Piccolo,

      Thank you for your comment. While you are concerned about the federal government co-opting these standards, let me assure you that, after reviewing the facts, there is no reason to fear. Please consider the source when gathering information on this topic. I’m sure you’d agree that organizations that aren’t from Utah have their own agenda and are not specifically considering Utah’s students when reviewing these standards, whereas the Utah State Board of Education is.

      The Utah State Board of Education is an elected body that is held accountable by Utah parents and given the constitutional mandate of general control and supervision of the state’s public education system. This elected body voted unanimously to adopt the Common Core State Standards after Utah educators participated in the process of developing them, after careful review of the finished product and after vetting the standards in public meetings held across the state. Support of the core has been widespread not because of a conspiracy or because the esteemed members of the Board have bowed to or been duped by the federal government.

      These standards have been adopted because they are simply the best that have been developed so far and they will better prepare our students to enter college and compete in the global marketplace. When a set of better standards are developed, the State Board will surely move to adopt them, too, because that is what they are elected to accomplish — ensuring Utah has high academic standards in place for all our public education students.

      Let me sooth your fears, further. The State Board has complete control over the standards in our state, and can change, alter and subtract from these standards at any time. There is evidence that your fears of a federal takeover of these standards are unfounded, evidence that shows the federal government does not plan to take over the standards. This isn’t our opinion or our perception, it’s the law. It’s also clarified in a letter received yesterday from U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan, himself. You may read the letter here, if you haven’t already: http://utahpubliceducation.org/2012/03/07/u-s-secretary-of-education-arne-duncan-utah-has-complete-control-of-standards/.

      Thank you for sharing your opinions,

      Elizabeth Ziegler
      Social Media Specialist
      Utah State Office of Education

  • Derek Monson

    Ms. Ziegler,

    I appreciate your desire to focus on the facts in this important dialogue. In that light, a few of the pertinent facts you mention are incorrect, or at least incomplete.

    The State Board of Education’s constitutional mandate of “general control and supervision” over public education only exists within the boundaries of the laws passed by the Legislature, as the Utah Supreme Court has plainly stated:

    “From the common and ordinary understanding of the plain language of the Utah Constitution, it is clear that the State Board has been vested with the authority to direct and manage all aspects of the public education system in accordance with the laws made by the legislature” (http://www.romingerlegal.com/utah/opinions/utahsc_1.htm).

    Within that more complete understanding of authority and control of public education, the Legislature has expressed sincere and reasonable concerns about the implications of adopting the Common Core standards. Further, they are moving to encourage the State Board of Education to reassess the wisdom and cost of those standards and associated assessments. Given the inherent trust that you express for Utah’s elected officials and federally appointed officials in regards to public education, I can only assume that your thinking on the Common Core will change once these Legislative measures are completed.

    As the facts of Utah’s experience with the federal government have shown, over time the feds usually seek more influence in Utah’s schools, not less. I agree with you that “organizations that aren’t from Utah have their own agenda.” The federal government is one such organization. For instance, while the current DOE’s NCLB waiver push will probably create more flexibility to states, at least temporarily (which is good), in the end it only amounts to swapping out an old set of federal rules for a new set.

    If past is prologue, as it usually is in politics, then the current administration (or another one not too many years down the road) will build on the new set of federal rules to establish new federal laws and rules in other areas of public education in Utah. In that context, it does not take a master logician to see how calls for “higher standards” from the federal government could turn into calls for “better curriculum to match the higher standards” when an imperfect public education system continues to fail certain segments of society.

    And while it is a fact that the State Board of Education can change education standards at any time, the rest of the facts suggest that if federal dollars get involved, as is true with most federal education programs, then they will be unwilling to do so. After all, the State Board of Education can opt out of NCLB at any time (and the burdensome aspects of it which everyone thinks are bad), but they are unwilling to do so because of the money involved.

    Concerns over the Common Core are not “fear,” “conspiracy,” or any other baseless argument. They are based on the facts and realities of Utah’s experience with the federal government when it comes to public education.

    Derek Monson
    Sutherland Institute

  • Sydnee Dickson

    Mr. Monson’s final comment may ring true if the Common Core Standards were in actuality federal standards. In spite of the many attempts to use the facts to show how these were developed by states, for states to adopt and use as they see fit, they continue to be pitched as federal standards. It is true, that the USDOE asked for college and career ready standards adoption as part of Race to the Top funding (which Utah was not awarded) and were called for in the ESEA Waiver, (which is not bound to funding). However, USDOE has been very clear and supportive in our determination to ensure that we will not allow Utah Standards to be co-opted by the federal government. The conspiracy theories that continue to dominate our time and attention go way beyond federal intrusion theory. Socialism, communism, evil, are just a few terms that have been frequently posted in connection with the standards. The same groups making these claims have declared in recent past that our schools need more rigorous standards and higher achievement. I challenge Mr. Monson and others to point out any of the standards that are problematic and to focus on the most important issues of all: students being prepared to thrive in today’s economy. Ironically, the central issue of student learning has been “hijacked” by special interest groups more concerned about federal intrusion than student success.

  • […] adoption of the Common Core? Opinions on this question vary widely (for example, see here, here and here). You can listen to our brief thoughts on the subject by going here, and we’ll give more […]

  • Matt Piccolo

    I think the problem is if USDOE decides to require participation in the Common Core in order to receive federal funds, which may not be the case now but seems to be where they are heading. I’d like to assume that as a state we would turn down federal dollars if the core does become something we don’t like, but given our history with NCLB I hesitate to make that assumption.

    I recognize that CCSS is a state-led initiative, that the current standards might be sound, that USOE is acting in good faith to do what it believes is best for Utah students, and that we can currently opt out if we’d like, but would we actually opt out if necessary if federal funds were involved?