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Common Core, uncommon debate

For anyone who watched as Indiana Republican legislators shoved through one bill after another affecting public education, it's a bit satisfying to see those same lawmakers tied up in knots over Common Core State Standards.

The legislators took on blind faith the assurances of state Superintendent Tony Bennett that his policies would improve Indiana schools. They never stopped to consider why Bennett was a darling of the corporate-controlled American Legislative Exchange Council or of an education reform movement driven by private interests and hedge-fund managers.

But when those corporate interests collided with tea party hysteria over Common Core, suddenly those lawmakers who embraced every untested reform find themselves in a quandary: Could Tony Bennett have been wrong about something?

If they're smart, they will secretly be worried about those other so-called reforms – school vouchers, a state charter school board, A-F school grades and more.

While GOP lawmakers like Scott Schneider are daring to challenge one single piece of the massive Bennett/Mitch Daniels reform package, other lawmakers are quietly putting in place protections for the rest of it. Bills authored by Reps. Robert Behning and Todd Huston would have a chilling effect on any effort to review the Common Core State Standards, as Superintendent Glenda Ritz has called for, or any other Bennett-backed measure.

I spoke with Rep. Vernon Smith, ranking minority member on the House Education Committee, about the bills today. The committee meets tomorrow, but neither bill is on the agenda. Smith said he has reached out to Behning, the committee chairman, to discuss them before they are placed on the agenda.

"That certainly undercuts the authority of the superintendent and the responsibilities she has," he said of Behning's bill, HB 1309. "That's a direct assault on her, probably because she's not of that (Republican) party. I was hoping that would not happen."

Smith said he also opposed Huston's bill to eliminate the requirement that the State Board of Education include educators currently licensed to teach in Indiana schools. He agreed the measure was a likely response to the board members who last month voted against licensing standards that make it easier for anyone to teach.

"It's because they understand the importance of pedagogy," he said.

A professor of education at IU Northwest, Smith said he makes it a point not to intervene in professional standards in medicine, insurance and other areas.

"At some point, we need to realize that experts need to have a say in this," he said.

Smith said he hopes to convince Behning that the legislation is wrong-headed.

"It just kind of neuters the office," he said. "I'm hoping he would not see a reason to go ahead with it."

But Behning's bill and Huston's equally troubling HB 1251 could move easily through the House and Senate, where the GOP holds supermajorities. Both bills have passed first reading and referred to Behning's committee. Neither bill has fiscal impact, so Republican lawmakers who might put the brakes on them out of concern for spending would have no reason to do so.

Smith said he hoped Ritz and her staff will object. Given the strong endorsement she won from Indiana voters on Nov. 6, the newly elected state superintendent certainly has the political capital to protest. And the Republican lawmakers unhappy with Common Core might want to consider if its wise to hand almost total control of state school policy to a handful of unelected officials.

Karen Francisco, editorial page editor for The Journal Gazette, has been an Indiana journalist since 1981. She writes frequently about education for The Journal Gazette opinion pages and here, where she looks at the business, politics and science of learning as it relates to northeast Indiana, the state and the nation. She can be reached at 260-461-8206 or by e-mail at kfrancisco@jg.net.

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