SALT LAKE CITY — Citing a discord that has grown "in volume and intensity," Gov. Gary Herbert on Thursday announced that he is directing the Utah Attorney General's Office to review the state's adoption of the Common Core State Standards.
Herbert said his office has received an increasing number of comments from parents, educators and lawmakers, both in support and opposition to the Common Core.
He said the state needs to resolve the contention surrounding Utah's statewide education standards in order for focus to return to where it belongs: helping Utah's 600,000 public and charter school students succeed.
"It seems we are too often talking past one another, using different terms to describe shared frustrations," he said. "The term 'Common Core,' in fact, has become so contentious that it is dividing us on things we all actually agree on, like the need of local control, setting high standards and preparing our students to succeed."
In addition to the review by the attorney general's office, Herbert announced that a committee of higher education representatives had been formed to review whether Utah's current standards adequately prepare students for careers and higher education.
A website has also been launched at utah.gov/governor/standards where residents can post concerns regarding the Common Core, but Herbert cautioned that comments should be specific and related to the actual content of the Core.
"If there is a standard or grade level benchmark that you disagree with, I want to hear about it," Herbert said.
The Common Core is a series of academic benchmarks, voluntarily adopted by all but six states, that are designed to better prepare children for higher education by outlining the minimum skills in mathematics and English that students are expected to master at each grade level.
The Core has drawn vocal criticism for being hastily implemented in some states and in many cases is mistakenly perceived as a federally mandated program that interferes with local control of curriculum.
Local control has been a key issue for Common Core opponents in Utah. Herbert said the attorney general's office has been specifically directed to review the question of state and school district control of curriculum and that "we are going to settle this question once and for all."
"For those who are concerned that (Common Core) has become some kind of a mandate, I want to re-assert that, in Utah, parents and teachers, principals and local school board members, in cooperation with the (the State School Board), are, and always will be, the primary decision makers," Herbert said. "I state unequivocally today that we will not cede that responsibility to anyone else."
Herbert also referenced concerns regarding student data privacy and SAGE, the state's new computer adaptive testing system, which are not part of the Common Core but are frequently misattributed to the education standards.
He said he was committed to working with lawmakers, educators, the Parent Teacher Association, local school boards and other stakeholders to address privacy and testing concerns, as well as to ensure that teachers are adequately trained to implement the new standards, that schools receive the necessary technology to conduct tests and that parents are empowered to help children with the sometimes challenging homework that stems from the new math standards.
"I recognize that there are bound to be bumps in the road during the rollout of any new program," he said. "But I state here today that where there are problems, we will fix them."
Education officials, both local and national, have long maintained that Utah continues to hold control over education under the Common Core and in 2012, legal staff with the Utah Legislature determined that Utah was free to withdraw from the Core and under no requirement to disclose personal student information.
When asked how the current review would differ from past reports on the Common Core, Herbert said he hopes the current reviews will provide some finality on the issue.
"I don’t know that it’s exactly different, I think it is just timely," he said. "Whatever has been done in the past has not resolved the dispute. There’s too much animus out there with the groups on all sides of the issue and it’s just time for us to kind of push the pause button and say, 'Let's re-evaluate. Let’s ascertain that we have Utah standards.'"
State School Board Chairman David Crandall said he welcomes the review and he looks forward to the findings of both the higher education committee and the attorney general's office.
"I agree with the principles (Herbert) laid out about having high standards, limited federal involvement in education and local control," Crandall said. "I agree with all that and I think it's wholly appropriate for higher education to define what it means to be college-ready since they control college."
He also said he appreciates the governor's efforts to resolve the contention that has surrounded Common Core since its adoption in 2010, but he added that some dissent is likely to continue no matter the outcome of the review.
"Realistically we realize that nothing is ever settled once and for all," he said. "I do appreciate what he’s doing and think it will help to calm some of the commotion across the state."
Oak Norton, a critic of the standards affiliated with the group Utahns Against Common Core, said in an email that he, too, welcomes a review by the attorney general's office.
"There are some significant challenges we face and it is paramount that we do everything in our power to shift to true local control where parents, teachers and students have maximum control over the educational pathway our children pursue," he said.
JoDee Sundberg, a member of the Alpine School Board, described her district as a "hotbed" of disagreement on the Common Core. She said an in-depth legal review of the Core will be beneficial for resolving questions and concerns.
"I think that (Herbert) has taken a great step forward," she said. "He’s taken leadership to put at ease questions and concerns."
When asked about the potential for overreach at the state level, Sundberg said that the Legislature, State School Board and local school boards all have a role in overseeing public education. She said that as long as each body can perform its individual responsibilities, students will be well-served.
"As long as everybody is doing their job in a collaborative effort, the right things will happen," she said.
Following Herbert's remarks, the State Board of Education released a statement of appreciation for the governor's committment to high educational standards, student data privacy and adequate teacher training.
"For decades, the board has regularly reviewed educational standards and has traditionally involved numerous professionals and outside sources in the process," the board's statement read. "We look forward to seeing higher education now even more involved in that process."
Reports from both the Utah Attorney General's Office and the higher education review committee are expected to be completed before the end of the year, and public comment on the governor's website will be open through the end of August.
The review committee will be chaired by Rich Kendell, education adviser to former Gov. Mike Leavitt and who more recently served as interim president of Southern Utah University. The committee will also include Matt Holland, president of Utah Valley University; Rob Brems, president of the Utah College of Applied Technology; Elizabeth Hitch of the Utah System of Higher Education; and Alan Hall, chairman of Prosperity 2020.
Other members of the committee have yet to be announced.
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