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Common Core compromise prevailing over more extreme bills on education standards

Rep. Harry Brooks (R-Knoxville) and Rep. Kevin Dunlap (D-Rock Island) discuss legislation prior to a House education panel on Tuesday. Lawmakers are discussing numerous bills related to Tennessee's Common Core State Standards.
Rep. Harry Brooks (R-Knoxville) and Rep. Kevin Dunlap (D-Rock Island) discuss legislation prior to a House education panel on Tuesday. Lawmakers are discussing numerous bills related to Tennessee's Common Core State Standards.

While some Tennessee lawmakers say more transparency and community input is all that’s needed to make them more comfortable with the Common Core, others want the much-debated academic standards to die a dramatic legislative death.

Both approaches were discussed on Wednesday in Senate and House education committees, highlighting tensions about what, if anything, is wrong with the standards adopted in 2010 by the state for math and reading.

Ultimately, despite fiery rhetoric in the months leading up to the legislative session, the more tempered approach ruled, with a compromise bill passing in the Senate Education Committee, after advancing on Tuesday in the House Education Instruction and Planning Committee.

The proposal introduced last week by Rep. Billy Spivey (R-Lewisburg) and Sen. Mike Bell (R-Riceville) adds an additional step to Gov. Bill Haslam’s current multi-step review process of the standards: a vetting by a panel largely appointed by the legislature. Spivey explained that the legislature is the branch of government most representative of the people, while the current review panel gives the governor “unilateral control.”

Legislators touted the bill as a sound approach to replace the Common Core. But does the bill actually get rid of the current standards?

When Bell presented the bill Wednesday, he said definitively that the proposal would get rid of the current standards.

“It replaces Common Core with standards set up by Tennesseans, with Tennessee values,” Bell said. “This process is not set up to rebrand Common Core or affirm Common Core. It is set up to replace Common Core, period!”

But when Spivey joined the presentation, he emphasized that replacing the standards doesn’t have to mean a drastic overhaul of education in the state, especially since schools and lawmakers have invested significant time implementing the Common Core.

“We need to honor that effort,” Spivey said. “We’ve been working on it far too long to undermine it by pulling out the rug from under them and starting something new.”

Spivey advocated to change state education policy by using a more exact “rifle shot” instead of shattering the standards with a “shotgun” approach.

Certainly not a supporter of the Common Core, he said his wife, a sixth-grade teacher in Marshall County, still hasn’t started teaching to the standards, four years after implementation began. However, he believes Tennesseans for now must show patience to allow standards to be thoroughly vetted, developed and aligned with new tests.

The Spivey-Bell bill, which passed unanimously Tuesday in the House Education Instruction and Programs Committee, also was approved by the Senate panel, with one abstention by Sen. Reginald Tate (D-Memphis), a staunch supporter of Common Core.

However, the compromise bill does little for constituents who want the Common Core gone, said Rep. Terri Lynn Weaver (R-Lancaster), speaking later before the House Education Instruction and Planning Subcommittee. She said Spivey’s compromise with Haslam is “totally different” from a repeal.

“When someone comes up to me at Wal-Mart or something, and says, ‘Are you repealing Common Core?’ I don’t have the confidence to say [yes],'” she said.

Calling the Common Core “indoctrination,” Weaver urged passage of her own bill that calls for the state to return immediately to its 2009 standards while new standards are developed. She offered few specific examples about her misgivings, although she mentioned that her third-grade grandson has to explain too much of his math work under the Common Core.

Ultimately, Weaver’s bill received no support in the subcommittee.

“I can’t pass a bill that’s so poorly constructed it just won’t work in the real world,” explained Rep. Bill Dunn (R-Knoxville), a co-sponsor of the Spivey-Bell bill.

Follow the status of education-related bills in the 109th Tennessee General Assembly.
Follow the status of education-related bills in the 109th Tennessee General Assembly.

Before voting against Weaver’s bill, Rep. John Forgety (R-Athens) said he understood her concerns, noting that he too has led charges against the Common Core. However, Forgety said the compromise bill, of which he is a co-sponsor, gets to the heart of concerns by allowing for more input from educators and constituents.

Another bill that would repeal Common Core and allow districts to adopt standards “superior or inferior” to Common Core was postponed until April 1 in both the House Instruction and Planning Subcommittee and Senate Education Committee.

Contact Grace Tatter at gtatter@chalkbeat.org.

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