Ignoring pleas from business leaders, the Senate Education Committee voted 6-3 along party lines Thursday to bar Arizona from implementing the Common Core standards the state adopted just four years earlier.
Sen. Al Melvin, R-Tucson, who championed SB 1310, said he does not doubt that the concept of some nationally recognized standards started out as a “pretty admirable pursuit by the private sector and governors.”
“It got hijacked by Washington, by the federal government,” he said. And Melvin, a candidate for governor, said that “as a conservative Reagan Republican I'm suspect about the U.S. Department of Education in general, but also any standards that are coming out of that department.”
Melvin's opposition led Sen. David Bradley, D-Tucson, to question him as to whether he's actually read the Common Core standards which have been adopted by 45 states.
“I've been exposed to them,” Melvin responded.
Pressed by Bradley for specifics, Melvin said he understands that “some of the reading material is borderline pornographic.” And he said the program uses “fuzzy math,” substituting letters for numbers in some examples.
Approval of SB 1310 was just part of the attack by the Republicans on the Education Committee on Common Core.
The panel approved three other measures that, in one form or another, would take away the power of the state to set educational standards and instead leave that role to local school boards. The only requirement would be these local standards could be no lower than those set by the Board of Education in 1999.
And the committee defeated another bill that would have paved the way for a pilot program to replace textbooks with computers. Even here, foes like parent Jennifer Reynolds said she sees the computers as part of Common Core – and part of a move to have students “indoctrinated of the concepts of global warming, evolution, defaming the founders.”
The votes took place despite warnings from corporate executives and business groups that any move away from Common Core is a bad idea.
“Our standards and our expectations were set too low,” said Glenn Hamer, president of the Arizona Chamber of Commerce and Industry. He said business leaders worked with governors to come up with new ones designed to ensure that high school graduates have the skills they need to work or go on to college.
Chad Heinrich, lobbyist for the Greater Phoenix Chamber of Commerce, warned that this step backwards could make Arizona high school graduates unemployable.
“The employer hires an employee with predictable skills who is job-ready,” he told lawmakers.
“We have workforce needs that we would prefer to meet by hiring Arizona graduates,” Heinrich said. “If Arizona graduates are not prepared, our employers could be forced to look to other states to fill those needs.”
Corporate executives signed in opposing the measure include those representing Intel, Sundt Construction, Sunbelt Holdings and Bank of America.
While they appear powerless to stop the legislation from proceeding, which now goes to the full Senate, they have an ace in the hole: Gov. Jan Brewer.
Responding to hostility to what some see as federal intrusion, Brewer last year directed agencies to stop using the phrase “Common Core” when referring to the new education standards. Instead she gave them a new name of “Arizona's College and Career Ready Standards.”
But Brewer press aide Anne Dockendorff said in a prepared statement Thursday the governor remains convinced that the new standards, by whatever name, are worth keeping.
“It is more imperative than ever that Arizona students are well-equipped to meet the needs of a competitive workforce,” Dockendorff said. She said Brewer sees the standards as ``a leap in the right direction'' and is `”committed to seeing their successful implementation.”
Brewer is not alone.
State School Superintendent John Huppenthal has said he believes the standards will “raise the bar for our students and better prepared them to succeed as they move on to college or career pathways.”
But opposition remains.
Diane Douglas, running against Huppenthal in the Republican primary, said the whole idea of Common Core is a violation of law.
“We have a constitution that does not allow the federal government to have this amount of intrusion, any amount of intrusion, to our local education,” she said.
For Melvin, the issue relates to how students are doing.
He said the United States spends more money per child than any country in the world but ranks 20th – or lower – in most categories.
“I'm worried about our country keeping its international status as a world power with this miserable academic performance,” he said. “We have cheated several generations of Americans out of a decent education.”
But Christine Thompson, executive director of the state Board of Education, said the record shows improvements in scores by Arizona students in the National Assessment of Educational Progress since the state adopted the Common Core standards.
Melvin said at least part of his opposition to Common Core is not limited to what he believes it does. He also fears what it might become.
“It seems to me we're heading down a road,'' he said. “Where will it end?”
He compared it directly to “ObamaCare,” saying the federal Affordable Care Act started as a 2,000-page bill which has generated 20,000 pages of regulations by “unelected bureaucrats.”
“I think the same thing is going to happen here,” Melvin said.
Sen. Kimberly Yee, R-Phoenix, said states have adopted these standards with the promise of federal funds.
“It certainly smelled a little bit like coercion,” she said. And Yee said having a single approach to education “gets a little bit scary.”