Colorado signs on to common standards

The Colorado State Board of Education and California’s state board Monday both adopted the Common Core Standards in language arts and math, meaning all 19 finalists for round two of Race to the Top are committed to that effort.

The 4-3 vote by Colorado’s SBE came after nearly four hours of public testimony – most of it in opposition – and lengthy board member statements. The outcome of the vote had been a bit uncertain, given that several members declined to show their hands before the meeting.

Vice Chair Randy DeHoff, R-6th District, who said last week that he was undecided, moved adoption of the common standards and provided the majority for passage. He was joined by Elaine Gantz Berman, D-1st District, Angelika Schroeder, D-2nd District, and Jane Goff, D-7th District.

Voting against adoption were Chair Bob Schaffer, R-4th District, Marcia Neal, R-3rd District, and Peggy Littleton, R-5th District.

Littleton had led the charge against the standards and organized a 90-minute public hearing before the vote. More than 30 witnesses, many of them private citizens, testified. The overwhelming majority urged rejection of the common standards.

The board’s vote defuses the tension that has been building for several weeks, keeps the state’s R2T bid competitive, maintains the board’s carefully nurtured collegiality and avoids embarrassment for education Commissioner Dwight Jones, who has been actively involved in the national standards and formally recommended that SBE adopt them.

In practical terms for state students and teachers, it’s hard to predict how adopting the national standards will change classroom learning in the years to come. State officials say there is about 90 percent overlap between the state language arts and math standards that the board adopted last December and the national standards.

Leading up to Monday’s meeting, Jones has been careful to tell the board that his recommendation wasn’t predetermined. On Monday, he expressed appreciation for the comments made during the public hearing and in the more than 600 e-mails received by the Department of Education.

He also said he listened carefully to pro-standards views expressed by Colorado business leaders such as Pete Coors, local superintendents and national education organizations.

Reading from a prepared statement, Jones said he decided that adopting the common standards was “in the best interests” of the state and it students, reminding his listeners that the standards don’t dictate classroom curricula but rather “set a common destination … the path to that destination remains in the hands of local teachers and local schools.”

Jones said, “Misinformation has led to the belief that adopting the common core standards” violate local control of schools but that, “They do not, in my opinion.”

DeHoff made his motion immediately after Jones’ presentation ended. “Is this a federal or national takeover of education? Are we truly selling our soul?” DeHoff asked in his prepared remarks. “I have read them, and I don’t find anything objectionable.”

Failure to adopt the standards would remove Colorado from any meaningful role in the national education debate, DeHoff argued.

Berman, who choked up a bit while relating the value of education to her immigrant forebears, said, “By supporting the common core, we are supporting the work of the Colorado academic standards.”

Goff agreed, “In my mind there is no danger. … We’re not going to lose the essence and the heart of our state standards.”

Schroeder noted that local control isn’t absolute and said Colorado students are competing in a global arena: “Our kids have to be prepared for that big world.”

Board opponents were skeptical of the federal government’s role in education. Neal said, “I’m not willing to put my feet on that very slippery slope.”

Littleton was the most impassioned critic of the common standards, calling them part of a “shell game” and declaring it is “deceptive” to say common standards won’t ultimately lead to a common curriculum. (A former teacher, Littleton had three coconut shells as a visual illustration of her comments.)

“I’m going to stand up against the encroachment of the federal government [and for] the sovereignty of the state of Colorado.” She closed her remarks by quoting from Patrick Henry’s “give me liberty or give me death” speech.

Schaffer, participating in the meeting on speakerphone, quipped that the quotation “makes me want to beat the British again. Looking at our math scores, we have some work to do.”

He said he was less concerned about federal overreach than he was about the quality of the common standards and whether they will have a real impact or just be another education fad. “Reform is in the eye of the beholder. Reform to me is more flexibility … more choice … and more freedom in education, not more constraints.”

Schaffer and several other members noted that money hung over the whole discussion, in the form of the $175 million Colorado might receive if it’s a R2T winner. “The reality is all about cash; it is all about money,” he said. Other members said they were sorry the R2T had clouded discussion of the common standards on their own merits.

DeHoff and Littleton both are leaving the board after this year.

Most of the citizens who spoke against the common standards had philosophical objections and warned that the federal government could usurp parent choice in education. Several witnesses said they were home schoolers or had been home-schooled.

Republican gubernatorial candidate Don Maes (far right, in white shirt) was among witnesses who opposed common standards during Aug. 2 testimony to the State Board of Education.

Conservative Republican gubernatorial candidate Don Maes testified, saying citizens are telling him, “Federal government, please keep your hands off our schools.”

Gerald Keefe, superintendent of the Kit Carson schools and a staunch local control advocate, urged rejection, as did state Sen. Keith King, R-Colorado Springs and the administrator of a charter school. But King, who said he also was speaking for seven other Republican senators, seemed to primarily have concerns about the quality of the national math standards and the weakening of the state writing standard.

Representatives of the business group Colorado Succeeds and the Colorado Children’s Campaign supported the common standards, as did Sen. Mike Johnston, D-Denver and author the state’s new teacher and principal effectiveness law.

Saying the decision was “one of the most important votes this board will take,” Johnston said, “You need to stand up and show the way as you have before.”

The standards were developed under the leadership of the National Governors’ Association and the Council of Chief State School officers, not the federal government. They’ve been adopted by more than 30 states, in most cases without controversy. The standards are seen as leading to multi-state achievement tests, which are being pushed by various national education groups.

Adoption of the standards means that Colorado will use the full national standards but can add up to 15 percent of additional state standards to each set.

Separately, adoption of the common standards is worth 20 points in the 500-point scoring system for R2T grants.