Lawmakers who wanted to see Common Core disappear from S.C. classrooms could not kill the education standards this spring. But lame-duck state schools Superintendent Mick Zais says he has a plan to make Common Core a thing of the past in South Carolina.
The Richland Republican, whose term ends when a new superintendent takes office in January, said he will instruct a group of educators tasked with revising the state’s K-12 education standards to ignore Common Core.
Zais’ move — to shape what S.C. school children should know and be able to do in different grades, long after Zais has left office — has the support of some Common Core opponents and at least one candidate to succeed him.
But some state leaders, including the chairmen of the two education boards that must approve any new standards, said throwing Common Core out of the process of writing new standards violates state law.
Other critics, including the executive director of the state’s Education Overtsight Committee, say starting over is irresponsible.
Despite this year’s legislative furor, Common Core is South Carolina’s current education standard through the end of the 2014-15 school year. But new state standards are scheduled to take effect in the fall of 2015.
Zais vows those standards will be S.C.-written and very different from Common Core.
“We’re not going to repackage (Common Core). We’re not going to rebrand. We’re not going to tweak the Common Core ... and we’re not even going to have a copy of Common Core state standards in the room for the writing panels,” Zais told The State earlier this week.
Instead, Zais says he will instruct the teams writing the math and English standards to start with South Carolina’s homegrown 2007 standards. That is the best way to have “new” standards by the fall of 2015, as required by the state law passed in May, Zais said.
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The S.C. educators also will be asked to look at standards developed in other states, including Texas, that did not adopt Common Core.
Zais has support from some vehement opponents of Common Core, including lawmakers. One candidate vying to replace Zais also sees value in not starting the review with Common Core’s standards.
“To gain the confidence of the community and the Legislature, we probably need to keep Common Core out of the room as much as possible,” said Molly Spearman, the Republican candidate hoping to succeed Zais.
But critics say starting over — with the state’s previous standards, rated as inferior to Common Core by an education think tank — is irresponsible, especially because educators have a shorter time frame than usual to revise and win approval of the new standards.
Unfazed by the critics, Zais is moving forward — confident his interpretation of the new law and the General Assembly’s intent is accurate.
More than 350 educators have applied to help rewrite the standards — about 10 times the number that usually apply when reviews come up — showing a heightened interest in take part in the process, said Dino Teppara, a state Department of Education spokesman.
The English and math teams are scheduled to meet later this month or early in August to begin their work. Zais hopes to have a draft finalized in December and ready to send to the state Board of Education for the first of several approvals in January, when the next schools superintendent takes office.
The new standards must be approved and in place in time for the 2015-16 school year.
‘Shouldn’t be going backwards’
The flap over Zais’ approach stems from confusion over whether the legislatively ordered review of what S.C. students should know should begin with the current state standards, Common Core.
Some educators and education officials said they first learned of Zais’ plan to leave Common Core out of the standards revision when called by The State.
A June 5 state Education Department memo, detailing the review’s time line and approach, says the goal is to replace Common Core. It also says the writing panel will “review the current standards and recommend revisions,” suggesting the existing state standards — Common Core — would be the starting place for the review.
Zais says the new law directs him to write new standards. He says that goal not will be achieved by starting with Common Core and reviewing its standards — though the end product, incidentally, may have similar standards.
Passed in May, the new law prompting the standards revision was a reaction to anger that peaked this year over the state’s 2010 adoption of Common Core.
Common Core is politically toxic in South Carolina’s right-wing Republican circles. The standards, the product of a nearly nationwide effort to create uniform standards from state to state, started with states and businesses, not the federal government. But opponents say the Obama administration is trying to force them on states.
It cost the state about $46 million and local districts at least $59 million to enact Common Core’s standards. Replacing them would cost about $66 million, according to a February estimate.
Some say Zais has gone too far in eliminating Common Core from the review process.
The law passed in May says: “For the purpose of developing new college and career readiness English/language arts and mathematics state content standards, a cyclical review must be performed (of) ... standards not developed by the South Carolina Department of Education.”
The review must begin on or before Jan. 1, and the “new” standards must be in effect for the 2015-16 school year, the law says.
Zais’ critics say the law clearly directs the review to begin with Common Core’s English and math standards, which were not written by the state.
State law “doesn't say they (Common Core standards) will be scrapped and thrown away,” said State Board of Education chairman Barry Bolen of West Columbia. “Our goal is to get the best.
“If that means blending the existing standards, which are Common Core, with other standards that are more rigorous,” that’s what the state should do, he said.
“The (Education Oversight Committee) is following the law, and it's going to start with Common Core,” said David Whittemore, chairman of the state’s education improvement and accountability agency which, along with the state Education Board, must approve changes to the education standards. That committee has a survey online inviting the public to give comments and recommend changes to Common Core.
But Education Department spokesman Teppara said that agency’s interpretation of the law is that it must create “new” standards.
“The cyclical review references the process to follow, not a starting point,” Teppara said. “If we start with Common Core, we end up with Common Core. It is simply not possible to interpret the General Assembly’s intent in such fashion.”
But Zais’ critics say ignoring Common Core while creating the new standards is irresponsible. Such a move would force the review panels to start with South Carolina’s pre-Common Core guidelines as they race to complete work in months that usually takes up to two years.
Those pre-Common Core standards were weak, critics say.
For example, the Fordham Institute, a conservative-leaning education think tank, gave the state’s previous standards for English a “D” compared to Common Core’s “B+.” Fordham gave the state’s pre-Common Core math standards a “C” compared to Common Core’s “A-.”
“Why would you not start with the current standards and change them?” said Melanie Barton, executive director of the state Education Oversight Committee.
“I am not here to justify Common Core, going forward. What this review should do is start with the current standards and make them more rigorous,” she said. “We shouldn't be going backwards.”
‘Just want high, deep standards’
Two of the candidates looking to succeed Zais as state schools superintendent also say the panels writing new state standards should have access to Common Core.
Democrat Tom Thompson of Columbia and the American Party’s Ed Murray of West Columbia said if they were directing the panels, they would allow them to look at Common Core in addition to other standards.
Principals and teachers are excited about some of the teaching methods that come from using the Common Core, Thompson said, adding, “That’s a mistake ... to factor out those things and ask the panel not to consider things that teachers are excited about.”
Murray said as a teacher he saw a need for more rigorous standards, and Common Core fits that need, helping students apply the knowledge that they learn.
But GOP candidate Spearman, who has entrenched ties in the state’s education policy community, reacted differently to the news that the revision would not start with Common Core.
“It’s pretty clear in the legislation that the intent of the General Assembly was to continue with the current standards” and revise, as necessary, from that starting point, Spearman said. “(But) our new South Carolina standards have to be our own standards that will pass the review and will gain the support of the Legislature and all communities in South Carolina.
“I am for doing whatever we have to do to get to that point.”
Spearman said she has been surprised not to hear more anxiety from teachers about the uncertainty over Common Core. But instead of teachers saying they want to keep Common Core, Spearman says she has heard, “ ‘We just want high, deep standards.’ ”
‘In the eye of the beholder’
Zais also says he is taking his cues from the General Assembly, which, he says, showed that it wanted the state to move away from Common Core by requiring “new” standards be developed.
The new law says the General Assembly must approve any new standards not written by S.C. educators — a requirement aimed at preventing the adoption of another set of out-of-state standards without lawmakers’ input.
But lawmakers disagree on whether their end goal was to start by ridding the state of Common Core entirely.
Some say that was their goal.
For example, state Sen. Shane Martin, R-Spartanburg, wrote he was “frustrated and alarmed” when he read that Barton, the Oversight Committee’s director, said there was not time for a “total rewrite.”
In a scathing letter to Barton, Martin wrote “the intention of the legislation is that South Carolina students not be subjected to Common Core standards in any way, shape or form.”
State Rep. Eric Bedingfield, R-Greenville, also a frequent critic of the standards, told The State that Zais should remove Common Core from consideration in rewriting the standards.
“I'm not telling you that I believe that each and every aspect of Common Core (is) terrible,” Bedingfield said, adding some standards — a “tiny piece here or there” — might be included in the new standards.
But starting with homegrown standards is “smart,” he said, “so that it doesn’t have the appearance of ... semantically changing parts here or there.”
Other lawmakers had a different interpretation of their intent.
“The legislative intent is to replace Common Core with state standards,” said state Sen. Wes Hayes, R-York, chairman of a Senate education subcommittee. “But the first place you look at intent is what's spelled out in the law.
“If we intended to go back to the (earlier) standards, we would have put that” in the law, he said.
“The intent of the General Assembly was to move forward with what we've got, fine tune and improve, and have oversight for (any) future (standards written outside of South Carolina),” said Senate Education chairman John Courson, R-Richland.
“I'm not sure this is not premature, what Dr. Zais is doing,” Courson said, adding out of courtesy to his successor, Zais should consider input from the candidates. But, Courson added, “He certainly has the right to do it.”
Asked whether the law requires standards writers to start with Common Core, Courson said, “That would be in the eye of the beholder."