SANDY — Concerned residents filled the auditorium of the Salt Lake Community College Miller Campus Tuesday for a panel discussion on the failures of the Common Core State Standards.
The standards are a set of achievement benchmarks in mathematics and English language arts that were developed by states and are voluntarily adopted. Utah has been involved with a consortium of states in developing the benchmarks for more than two years, but the issue has gained notoriety in recent months as many Utahns view the program as a federal intrusion into state sovereignty.
One-third to one-fourth of Tuesday's crowd of approximately 300 self-identified as home schoolers, but frequently joined their public education peers in applauding the remarks by panel members who alternated between detailing the background of the Common Core to discussing American federalism and the proper role of the U.S. Department of Education.
"At the end of the day, this is a constitutional issue," said panel member Emmett McGroarty, an attorney and senior director of the American Principals Project. "This is patriot time. This is the time to stand up and defend our country."
The two-hour meeting began with a prayer, pledge of allegiance and a musical number. Organizer Alisa Ellis said the goal of the event was to educate people on the issues surrounding Common Core and provide an alternate perspective from what was being disseminated by the State Office of Education.
"It's so important to look at all sides of every issue," Ellis said, "so we are here to present the other side to what the state school board and those are mentioning about it."
Ellis was also critical of the amount of information that had been provided to parents prior to the state's decision to implement the Common Core standards. She said she has six children in Utah public schools and did not know about the new standards until the decision had already been made.
"I can't believe how many neighbors don't have any idea what the words 'common core' mean," she said.
In addition to McGroarty, the panel included James Gass, director of the Pioneer Institute's Center for School Reform, Bill Evers, a research fellow at the Hoover Institution of Stanford University, and Kent Talbert, a lawyer specializing in education.
McGroarty spoke first, focusing on the early development of a national education standard initiative. He categorized the various interest groups involved in the benchmark's inception as a "cartel" and described financial incentives offered by the federal government — such as the competitive Race To The Top — to distribute stimulus money as "perverse."
"If it's our taxpayers' money, why do we have to compete for it? Why can't you just give it to us?" he asked. "Primarily what we're talking about is the parent-child relationship. We're taking authority away from the parent and community."
Many of the panel members took issue with the English Language Arts standards in the Common Core, which lessen the emphasis on classical literature in lieu of information texts.
"Children learn about human nature by reading high quality literature," Grass said. "These are not the kinds of things you can learn from Federal Reserve texts or computer manuals."
Evers, who is an adviser to the Mitt Romney election campaigned but emphasized that he was not speaking in that role Tuesday, structured his remarks on the question of whether or not the standards would make a positive difference in education. In his opinion, he said, they are not.
Evers said it's hard to draw a conclusion about nationalized education by looking at other countries, because there are countries performing better, worse and equal to the U.S. with national standards. He said a good comparison is Australia and Canada, which have seen education progress with limited federal control.
"They, without nationalization, have climbed," he said. "They have surpassed the United States."
He also referenced Utah's prior mathematics standards, in which students study basic algebra in the eighth grade. Under the Common Core State Standards, he said, students would not receive the equivalent instruction until their freshman year of high school.
"You have better math standards now than in Common Core," he said. "They are retarding the progress of your students by one full grade."
While none were included in Tuesday's panel, supporters of the Common Core argue that the standards are designed to incorporate various mathematical subjects — such as trigonometry, geometry and algebra — at every grade level and provide a more seamless transition to college- and university-level courses.
At the close of the meeting, Ellis provided audience members with a phone number for Gov. Gary Herbert and urged all in attendance to call as soon as possible to request that Utah withdraw from the Common Core.
"Call him tomorrow," she said. "And if you don't know tomorrow if you want out, call him when you figure it out."