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Lawmakers Taking Wait-and-See Approach to Common Core

Senate Education Committee gives listen to supporters, detractors of nationwide standards plan

The Tennessee Senate Education Committee on Friday wrapped up two days of hearings on the the new nationwide education-standards blueprint that’s been drawing attention around the country.

The committee, chaired by Somerville Republican Dolores Gresham, didn’t take any definitive action, but promised a formal written review of the Common Core Standards plan in Tennessee.

Common Core is all but certain to remain on the political radar going into the 2014 state legislative session as the Tennessee Department of Education and local school districts continue implementing various program elements.

“These hearings have met the goal that we set, and that was to bring us some enlightenment on the whole subject of the Common Core State Standards,” said Gresham at the close of Friday’s meeting. “It will be our job now to soberly reflect on what we have heard, and then put together a report that will go to the full Senate in January.”

Gov. Bill Haslam’s education commissioner, Kevin Huffman, defended Common Core and Tennessee’s participation in it. Applying standards to Tennessee students that are aligned with standards used to assess students across the country will work to their long-term advantage, he suggested.

“Tennessee students are as smart and as capable as students anywhere in the country, and…when we give them the right challenges and opportunities, they rise to those challenges,” Huffman said.

Tennessee, one of 45 states to take up the standards, adopted Common Core in 2010, and has been gradually shifting its education standards to full implementation over the past three years.

Those testifying included teachers, administrators, business leaders, politicians and representatives from nonprofit organizations. The issues discussed ranged from concerns about student privacy and “data mining” to concern over selection of appropriate reading materials.

A Republican state senator from Georgia, William Ligon of St. Simons Island, testified before the committee about his state’s experience with Common Core. Ligon said he’s been pushing Georgia to ditch the initiative because citizens don’t seem to have a lot of say in how it is carried out or what students are asked to learn through it.

One worry voiced frequently during the hearing was the prospect of added Common Core costs to local Tennessee school districts. Ligon argued Georgia taxpayers are very likely paying more for education as a result of the program, but there’s actually no official Common Core fiscal evaluation by the state government.

“(Common Core) was brought to Georgia without any review of the cost,” Ligon said. “In our hearings held last January in our state senate, I specifically asked our Department of Education, ‘Where is your cost analysis?’ And they had none.

“The only estimate of costs have come from nonprofits, such as the Pioneer Institute, and they concluded that Georgia would be spending about $225 million on professional development, $100 million for textbooks and $275 million on technology,” Ligon continued. “One of the things that we found was is that our cost to administer standardized tests went from $11 per student to $33 per student, if your school system had the technology and the broadband to administer these tests online.”

The written test could be purchased for $40 per student, if the school was unable to administer the tests online due to technological restrictions, Ligon said.

Huffman downplayed any potential cost increases. The Tennessee General Assembly appropriated $51 million in funds last year to provide aid for local school districts with “technology readiness,” he said, adding that technological advancements are needed to help Tennessee students achieve more, and be better prepared for secondary education and the workforce.

Huffman told reporters new assessment tests across the state will raise costs $1 million to $5 million more “than if we had to do TCAP covering the same subject areas.”

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