Common Core bills face key panel votes

After months of arguments outside the State Capitol, lawmakers are set to cast their first votes Wednesday on the future of the academic standards known as Common Core.

In an unusual move, the House Education Committee will devote what may be a daylong hearing, and possibly more, strictly to bills that would repeal or revamp the classroom goals, which were adopted by Louisiana and 44 other states.

An overflow committee room is expected, and passions may run high amid charges by Common Core opponents that the standards are a misguided attempt by federal officials and others to wrest control of public schools away from state and local officials.

“We feel like we can do our own thing here in the state of Louisiana,” said Rep. J. Rogers Pope, R-Denham Springs, and co-author of one of the bills that would derail the standards.

“But we don’t want to move backward,” Pope said. “That is not our intent.”

Common Core backers are equally adamant that the standards will help lift Louisiana from its longtime spot near the bottom of the 50 states in public school achievement.

“We need higher standards in our schools,” said Barry Erwin, president of the Council for a Better Louisiana.

“We have a third of our kids that now graduate that go into remedial classes before they even get into college,” he said. “Clearly we have some gaps.”

The issue has sparked public rallies, hearings before the state’s top school board and arguments in local school boards, especially in southeast Louisiana.

The new standards apply to reading, writing and math from kindergarten through 12th grade. They are supposed to take full effect in classrooms statewide for the 2014-15 school year.

Students in grades three through eight are scheduled to be tested through a consortium called the Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers to see how they fare compared to students nationwide.

State officials have not decided how to test high school students.

Bills set for debate at 9 a.m. Wednesday include:

House Bill 381, which would set up a 30-member commission of educators and others to craft new standards and make them subject to legislative review.

House Bills 996, 558 and 163, all of which would prohibit PARCC tests.

House Bill 988, which would allow local school boards to craft their own classroom standards.

Any legislation that emerges from the committee faces a vote in the full House and, if approved there, action in the Senate, where anti-Common Core feeling is far more muted than in the House.

The commission proposal is sponsored by Pope, superintendent of the Livingston Parish school system from 1987-2001, and state Rep. Brett Geymann, R-Lake Charles.

Geymann was the leader of last year’s “fiscal hawks” effort to revamp the state budget process.

The panel would include parents, teachers, college deans, principals, superintendents, state officials and teacher union representatives. Any recommendations would have to be endorsed by the Legislature.

Meanwhile, the bill would require the state to resume using the standards employed before Common Core started being phased in.

Asked about prospects, Pope said, “We hope it will be a slam dunk. We feel like we have a good chance. The majority of school people are on board with this.”

Reps. John Schroder, R-Covington; Cameron Henry, R-Metairie; and Henry Burns, R-Haughton, are the sponsors of the three bills that would prevent the state from relying on the PARCC tests or any other national consortium.

Gov. Bobby Jindal, who has mixed views about Common Core, echoed PARCC critics earlier this month when he said he does not support “federal, one-size-fits-all testing that potentially breaches student privacy.”

State education officials plan to announce Monday that 15,000 students in grades three through 11 took part in the first of three weeks of PARCC field tests. The trials were in preparation for the launch of the new exams in 2015.

The standards were developed by superintendents nationwide and the National Governors’ Association, with input from various groups

The Obama administration is supportive of the standards, which has spawned charges of “Obamacore.”

Federal officials furnished $546 million for the development of PARCC and another assessment system called the Smarter Balanced Assessment Consortium.

Erwin said one of the beauties of PARCC is that state officials helped craft the tests and they allow for state-to-state comparisons.

The tests are sophisticated, will help teachers assist students and require the kind of critical thinking that boosts student achievement, he said.

The state Department of Education, in an internal review, concluded Friday that replacing Common Core with new standards and assessments would cost the state up to $25 million and local school districts millions more.

Common Core critics denounced the cost analysis.

Some lawmakers back the new standards but are leery of PARCC.

“I know that a lot of folks are really having more trepidations about PARCC than anything,” said state Rep. Patricia Smith, D-Baton Rouge, a member of the committee.

“But I don’t believe we should do away with Common Core standards,” she said. “I do believe the standards are good.”