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Tables turn as Georgians argue over education standards

Posted: February 12, 2014 - 12:08am

ATLANTA — For a state with a reputation for not valuing public education, there sure is a loud argument going on over school standards.

Both sides say they favor rigorous standards that will prepare Georgia children to compete against their peers from other countries.

It’s a debate that has gone the legislature and school boards to include grassroots political organizations, business groups and electioneering candidates.

The current topic is the Common Core standards agreed to by most states as a way to compare student achievement and simplify the adjustment of students who move from one state to another.

The previous debate topic was charter schools, coming to a head when voters faced a referendum on a constitutional amendment regarding their funding. The sides weren’t drawn exactly the same as this year, but the shouting was just as loud.

In many respects, both issues come down to pragmatists versus populists. Pragmatists want to make the conventional institutions function efficiently with minimal distraction while populists harbor an inherent distrust of institutions and advocate “disruptive innovation.”

Common Core standards have been agreed to by most states. The Obama administration has also endorsed them, especially encouraging states like Georgia that participated in the Race to the Top grant program to adopt the standards.

Opponents of the standards say they are being ramrodded by the federal government without thorough research or teacher input, ultimately weakening Georgia’s curriculum.

“If these new standards are rigorous, that is certainly not the word I would choose,” parent Tammy Slaton said during a Stop Common Core rally last week sponsored by various Tea Party groups.

The Georgia Chamber of Commerce, StudentsFirst and other business and education groups held their own press conference the next day in support of Common Core.

“We are the folks on the front line hiring the students who come out of our schools, and we know what they need to be productive,” said Chris Clark, president of the chamber.

In this particular discussion, one man has said little, at least until granting an interview with the PeachPundit.com blogger Mike Hassinger.

Is Common Core a federal takeover of education, Hassinger asked former Gov. Sonny Perdue.

“Quite the opposite. This was always a voluntary agreement among states who believed that it made more sense as a ‘vaccination’ against federal involvement in education,” said Perdue, who, as chairman of the Republican Governor’s Association, was a driving force in building that consensus among his counterparts.

Perdue said the grassroots squawking resulted from largely partisan distrust. “I never heard any opposition or suspicion of Common Core until there was support from the president,” he said.

Nevertheless, that opposition may have reached the point of no return. At a forum the chamber held last month for candidates running for state superintendent of schools, all seven of the GOP hopefuls present vowed to end the state’s three-year use of Common Core.

Matt Shultz, a former teacher who now owns a business and serves on the Bartow County school board, said there may be benefits to the Common Core but convincing the public to accept it is impossible.

“We have lost the marketing war on Common Core. That’s just a statement of fact,” he said. “I think we’re kidding ourselves if we think we can push this Common Core on the state.”

So, as the business executives supporting the standards draw on their collective marketing skills to restore public faith in it, despite Shultz’s observation, another question remains.

Will anyone seize this moment to extend the conversation about enhancing public education? Both sides say that is their goal, but each is suspicious of the other.

At the very least, it’s hard to say no one in Georgia values public education when everyone is yelling about the best way to improve it.

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