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North Carolina's Common-Core 'Repeal' Bills, Through the State Chief's Eyes

In the wake of decisions by Oklahoma and South Carolina to end their commitment to the Common Core State Standards, it's worth looking at where else similar moves are in the works. There's Missouri, where Gov. Jay Nixon, a Democrat, is considering a bill that was passed last month to have several working groups that include parents come up with new content standards over the next couple of years. And then there's North Carolina, where lawmakers in each chamber of the legislature have passed bills concerning the common core.

Of the states that have seriously entertained reversing the common core or those that have actually done so this year, North Carolina is worth highlighting in this context because it's the largest among them in terms of population and K-12 enrollment. It's also a place where the two most powerful state executives in this context, Gov. Pat McCrory, a Republican, and state Superintendent June Atkinson, a Democrat, are firmly behind the standards, along with the state's business community. (Of course, it should be noted that common-core support from chambers of commerce has been pretty consistent, if not universal, in the states.)

As an aside, North Carolina is also the home of the Hunt Institute, a think tank run led by former state Gov. Jim Hunt that has worked to coordinate support for the common core. The institute was highlighted in an interesting June 8 piece in the Washington Post explaining Microsoft founder Bill Gates' involvement with the standards

So what's actually in the relevant North Carolina legislation? Both the House and Senate bills, which are companion pieces of legislation, don't actually call for a repeal or prohibition of the common core. Unlike in Oklahoma, they wouldn't require North Carolina to immediately revert to its previous English/language arts and math standards. And unlike in the laws just approved in Oklahoma and South Carolina, there would be no legislative oversight or approval when it comes to any required new standards.

Instead, both bills would establish a commission, with members appointed by legislators, the governor, and others, to review the E/LA and math standards and recommend revisions to the state board of education. The state board would have to collaborate with this new Academic Standards Review Commission when considering new standards. And the language would require schools to be evaluated by the state on the new set of standards developed through this new process, and not the common core, a change from current state law. 

So there is language that would seem to circumscribe the power of the common core, at least nominally. But in a conversation I had with Atkinson, she confirmed that there's nothing in the bills that would force the state board to adopt any revisions to the common core, or to toss the standards out entirely. The state board could adopt or discard any of the recommendations that came from this new standards commission. In other words, the ultimate power held by the state board, which has backed the common core, wouldn't be reduced, as it now is in Oklahoma and could be in South Carolina.

Practically speaking, if the North Carolina legislation were to become state law, there's a decent chance that political pressure surrounding the standards would lead to the state board adopting at least some revisions to the standards, even if those changes don't "repeal" or altogether junk the common core. States have some flexibility in making adjustments or additions to the common core, although not as much as some would like or feel is appropriate.

Florida is a good example of a state that made certain changes to the E/LA and math standards earlier this year while remaining, in practice, a "common core state." In fact, if the North Carolina legislation passes, its action may not be a great deal different than what the Sunshine State did with respect to the standards. 

Still, Atkinson told me that these bill will ultimately "politicize what students should know and be able to do." 

"It complicates our work," she told me, adding that content experts should ultimately be in charge of making such decisions.

I asked her whether it was unfair or unrealistic to expect that experts, rather than elected politicians, would always get to make such crucial decisions, in education policy or in any other policy field. She responded that state lawmakers should at least understand how the standards work and be able to articulate why they think the standards are a bad idea or could be changed to help students. Instead, she argued, "We have a small group of people who speak with loud voices." 

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