SALT LAKE CITY — Common Core opponents took their long-simmering fight over Utah's school standards straight to the State Capitol Wednesday as a standing-room-only crowd of more than 450 people gathered in the Hall of Governors to voice their concerns.
But most of the comments shared were less concerned with the content of the standards themselves – which define the minimum skills a student should learn in each grade – than the collaborative process that created them.
"It wouldn’t matter whether these standards were straight out of the 10 commandments," said former U.S. congressional candidate Cherilyn Eagar. "Where is the legal and constitutional authority for the unelected to fund and create standards for the states and then call it state-led?"
State law grants authority to the elected State School Board to adopt educational standards. In this case, the board voluntarily adopted the math and English language arts portions of the Common Core State Standards, a series of benchmarks designed to prepare students for higher education, which have similarly been adopted by 45 states and the District of Columbia.
Were the state to withdraw from the standards, the math and English portions of the Utah Core would be replaced by locally developed benchmarks – similar to the developed standards that make up the 16 other subject areas of the Utah Core.
Some critics and opponents of Common Core view the national standards as academically unproven and the first step in a federal takeover of local schools.
But with the school board standing by its decision to adopt the standards, and a largely incumbent school board winning re-election in November, opponents are now asking lawmakers to intervene in the school board's constitutional authority.
In May, opponents were successful at passing a strongly worded resolution critical of the Common Core during the Utah Republican Party Organizing Convention. The resolution urged lawmakers to defund school programs affiliated with the standards and passed by a vote of more than 60 percent of present delegates, despite receiving an unfavorable recommendation from the party's reviewing committee for being inaccurate, misleading and inflammatory.
On Wednesday, opponents cut out the middle man and took their concerns to the Salt Lake Capitol, where invited lawmakers heard firsthand how the state's schools were in jeopardy of surrendering local control.
"We believe we are bright enough to set our own standards," said Peter Cannon, a member of the Davis School District Board of Education. "I’ve lived in Washington, D.C. and I don’t believe they’re any smarter there than we are and we can do for ourselves better than they can for us."
Gayle Ruzicka, president of the Utah Eagle Forum, addressed the lawmakers present directly, dismissing the notion that their hands were tied on Common Core by the constitutional authority of the school board. Ruzicka suggested they starve schools of funding until the standards are dropped or halted.
"There are things we can do because you are the ones that fund Common Core," she said.
Oak Norton, a vocal critic of the standards, shared the experience of a friend's daughter who had struggled in math but was required to advance academically because of the Core's minimum standards. He said local control would allow for parents and teachers to better meet the individual needs of children.
"Common core is preventing the needs of a child to be met," he said. "It’s time Utah led the way instead of following a consortium of states down the path to mediocrity."
The event included several comments from parents and teachers worried that Utah educators would be unable to adapt or modify the portions of Common Core the state had adopted. But states have been proven able to amend the Core, including in Utah where the State School Board recently added instruction in handwriting and cursive to the English language arts standards.
The meeting also functioned as a catch-all for parents' public education grievances, with speakers decrying standardized testing, career aptitude surveys, the SAT, Scholastic News, the German education system and statewide computer adaptive testing, which was mandated by Utah lawmakers independent of the Common Core.
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