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Legal Complaint Claims 'Coercion' in Oregon Common-Core Guidance

Instances of political tensions surrounding the Common Core State Standards are playing out in Maryland and Oregon that illustrate different concerns about the standards. 

Let's start in Maryland, where the Teachers Association of Baltimore County has filed a work grievance regarding the common core. The heart of the complaint from TABCO, filed against the county school board, is that work requirements on the new standards and associated curriculum violate the terms of its contract with the district—teachers were scheduled to write curriculum earlier this year, but fell behind. Here's the Baltimore Sun explaining the complaint: "The county union documented the extra work by asking teachers to fill out work logs over a two-week period. [TABCO President Abby] Beytin said the logs show that teachers are sometimes working 30 to 40 extra hours during that time. While teachers are normally expected to work additional time outside of their classroom schedule, the hours are much greater this year, according to the union."

The state adopted the common core when it applied for and won Race to the Top funds in 2010. School districts are fully implementing the standards in classrooms this year. As I wrote  earlier this year, teachers' unions in Maryland have become increasingly unhappy with how the common core, new common-core aligned tests, and teacher evaluations have impacted policy decisions by the state education department. Essentially, unions and some districts have argued that as the state completes the move to the standards in 2013-14, it doesn't make sense to continue using the state's current accountability exam, the Maryland School Assessment, in teacher evaluations (the state is slated to give the operational PARCC tests in 2014-15). 

The complaint from TABCO deals specifically with the curriculum and not directly with these broader concerns, but it certainly won't help the negative feelings some teachers (and districts) are feeling regarding the standards. 

The president of the county school board, Lawrence Schmidt, and district Superintendent Dallas Dance said they would review the complaint, but added, "It is important to note when we signed on to Race to the Top, which the prior administration and TABCO agreed to, everyone accepted certain reforms."

Earlier this year, Dance had to apologize for problems with the new curriculum under common core, after elementary school teachers got the completed curriculum only a few days before the school year began. 

Now let's move on to Oregon. In response to recent questions from local school boards about the common core, the Oregon School Boards Association distributed a document with guidance about the standards, including their goals, how the state adopted common core, and what happens if a school district refuses to adopt the standards, including the loss of state and federal K-12 funding.

This guidance from the OSBA amounts to "illegal threatening coercion and bribery," according to a legal complaint submitted by Donna Bleiler, the chairwoman of Oregon As A Mom, with support from two other groups, Radical Moms in Oregon and We the Parents SPEAK. The complaint argues that this document, along with threats allegedly made by Oregon Deputy Superintendent Rob Saxton to school administrators about adhering to the common core, amount to inappropriately tying the hands of teachers and other K-12 officials.

The complaint seeks a "cease and desist" order against OSBA and Saxton regarding the document and other directions to school boards about the standards, and that teachers be protected when they want to share opinions about the standards. (In one more twist, it alleges that OSBA and Saxton appear guilty of "practicing law without a license" by giving legal opinions.)

"The threats in this Guide attempt to influence or persuade school boards and personnel to do something they otherwise would not have done, or influence them to not teach curriculums best suited or supported by their district or schools," the complaint states. It goes on to say that OSBA and Saxton have created "fear" among teachers and others about resisting the common core in the intersts of their students. 

  Common Core Complaint Filed with Oregon Attorney General by Shane Vander Hart

As A Mom's website describes itself as a "sisterhood of mommy patriots" and has materials explaining what it views as the flaws in the common core

So what does Betsy Miller-Jones, the OSBA's executive director, say about this argument? She denies the central allegation of the complaint, and said that her organization was trying to respond to questions from school board members, some of whom, she noted, didn't feel entirely confident about discussing the history and exact nature of the standards without consulting OSBA. "We were simply trying to provide them with neutral information, but very clear information," Miller-Jones told me.

She's told board members, for example, that the state school board has been adopting standards since 1991, and that the adoption of the common core didn't break new ground in this regard. (The state adopted the standards in 2010.)

Miller-Jones said she's seen a small uptick in the amount of general concern expressed about the standards, and added, "It's good that we're having a statewide conversation about education that people are very passionate about."

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