(NOTE: This story, identified by Chalkbeat’s editors as one of our best of 2014, was first published last March. Indiana went on to quickly devise its own academic standards, creating a challenge for teachers to adapt fast so their students can be ready for new, tougher ISTEP tests with “technology-enahnced” questions coming in 2015.)
Across the country, skepticism about Common Core has grown, mostly led by conservatives worried about what they view as increasing outside influence over local education issues.
But until now, no states had officially changed their minds about following the standards.
So how did Indiana become the first?
“I think it occurred here through a pretty unique chain of events,” said Derek Redelman, vice president of the Indiana Chamber of Commerce.
In 2010 Indiana was one of earliest of the 45 states that ultimately agreed to make Common Core their state standards with the goal of assuring high school graduates are ready for college or careers. The effort was led by the state’s popular governor at the time, Mitch Daniels, and Tony Bennett, his hard-charging state superintendent, both Republicans.
But in 2012, Daniels left office and was replaced by Pence, a small government conservative with a dimmer view external influences on education in the state. As a U.S. congressman, Pence voted against the bill that created the federal No Child Left Behind law, calling it intrusive, although it was a major initiative of President George W. Bush’s administration.
Also in 2012, Bennett was upset in a re-election bid by Glenda Ritz, who was ambivalent about Common Core. Although Bennett’s defeat is sometimes blamed on anti-Common Core backlash, the standards were never a major issue in the election campaign.
But without Daniels and Bennett, criticism of Common Core, some of which proponents reject as flat out untrue, gained traction.
“Those of us who had been supportive were really not engaged,” Redelman said of Common Core. “After Tony’s loss we got focused on things we thought were at much higher risk, like the voucher program and the testing program, things Glenda Ritz campaigned against. We didn’t even focus on Common Core to begin with.”
But Common Core opponents, led by the group Hoosiers Against Common Core, already were laying the groundwork to make it a major legislative issue. The group was founded by Erin Tuttle and Heather Crossin, a pair of Indianapolis mothers who objected to changes in their children’s schoolwork that the schools said were driven by Common Core.
In 2013, the legislature approved a bill to “pause” implementation of Common Core to allow time for a new review of the standards and a new vote of the Indiana State Board of Education by July 1, 2014. The review process over the last few months evolved into an effort to set new, Indiana-specific academic standards to replace Common Core.
Opponents of the standards were able to connect with the natural sympathy of several key Republican players, who share with Common Core critics’ grave concerns about the influence of the federal government. Besides Pence, opponents ultimately convinced key players like Senate President David Long, R- Fort Wayne; Senate Education Committee Chairman Dennis Kruse, R-Auburn; and the Senate’s chief budget maker, Luke Kenley, R-Noblesville, that Indiana had something to lose by sticking with Common Core.
“I don’t think the Common Core discussion is a step backward,” Long said last week. “I think it’s an issue of sovereignty. We’re talking about trying to have the highest standards in the country, but making sure Indiana controls those standards and it isn’t dictated by the federal government. It’s a state’s rights issue. Indiana is going to stay in control of its standards and what’s being taught in its classrooms.”
Proponents of Common Core say it is simply false that the federal government wants to use the standards to control education in Indiana. They note that the standards were created independently and promoted by state governors. While it’s true that the U.S. Department of Education required states to create “college and career ready” standards to receive federal grants or release from some federal rules, Indiana was never specifically required to adopt Common Core. In fact, an agreement between the state and the U.S. Department of Education releasing Indiana from some of the sanctions of NCLB and required college and career ready standards came more than a year after the state had adopted Common Core, not before.
Even so, Kenley, who chairs the Senate Appropriations Committee and serves on the education committee, said the state has learned from the implementation of NCLB that the federal government can wield strong influence over education in the states. In that case, he said, federal officials used the power to deny federal aid to steer states toward its favored policies even when it was clear the law needed changes.
“The point was we had this No Child Left Behind, which was a federal government effort to try to help in education, and it turned out to be a mess,” Kenley said.
States are better off running their own education policy, he said.
“The main issue here is to assert indiana’s ability to be nimble, to be flexible, to move where we want to go on standards and not be tied down to the federal government or some national coalition,” Kenley said. “The assertion that Indiana set its own standards is the assertion of state’s rights.”
Still, Common Core supporters are not entirely disheartened. Indiana’s process of re-evaluating the standards is not terribly different from what other states have done, Redelman said. Many Common Core principles are likely to remain in state standards. The legislature’s move was mostly symbolic, he said.
When Senate Bill 91’s author, Sen. Scott Schneider, R-Indianapolis, removed himself from the bill and voted against it, that demonstrated Common Core opponents didn’t really get what they wanted, Redelman said.
“If this bill truly withdrew us from Common Core entirely, that wouldn’t have happened,” he said.
Still, Republican leaders argued Indiana is better off debating standards now, when the public is engaged, than in 2010, when few lawmakers, much less the general public, even knew what Common Core was.
“We didn’t have any say in this at all,” Long said. “It was implemented by the Daniels administration and with Tony Bennett without any say front the legislature.”
For Pence, the process being led by Democrat Ritz and the Republican-appointed state board of education will result in better standards than Common Core, he said.
“We are deep into a completely transparent and public process to do that,” Pence said. “We are undergoing maybe an unprecedented effort for any state in the country for developing our standards with broad public input.”