Common Core debate could drive race for S.C. schools chief

02/05/2014 10:25 PM

02/05/2014 10:27 PM

The race for state school superintendent is shaping up to be a referendum on Common Core education standards, especially for Republican candidates, some candidates, lawmakers and observers say.

The standards, which outline what students should know in math and reading and be able to do at each grade level, increasingly are becoming a political issue in South Carolina, with Republicans facing GOP primaries in June joining a chorus of critics.

The critics include the state’s two U.S. senators, Lindsey Graham and Tim Scott, and state Sen. Lee Bright, R-Spartanburg, who is running to unseat Graham in June’s GOP primary. Bright is pushing a bill that would void the standards. Gov. Nikki Haley also supports rolling back Common Core.

Sheri Few, one of six announced Republicans seeking the GOP nomination for state superintendent, says the standards “absolutely” will take center stage in the campaign. Few has been fighting the standards for a year, recently launching a political action committee that made robo-calls to some state senators’ constituents, encouraging them to call their lawmakers.

“It is the sentiment of the Republican Party that we repeal Common Core. So a state superintendent of education candidate who didn’t have that (repeal) at the forefront of their race would be remiss,” Few said Wednesday at a state Senate hearing.

At that hearing, national Common Core opponents faced off with supporters of the standards: two S.C. educators and a state Chamber of Commerce representative.

University of South Carolina political scientist Mark Tompkins said the Common Core debate really is about culture and beliefs, and could drive GOP primary voters.

“It might be a winning strategy in the Republican primary,” Tompkins said. “Because of that, it might be a central issue in the general (election).”

State Sen. Wes Hayes, R-York, who chairs the education panel that held Wednesday’s hearing, said where GOP candidates stand will be “a litmus test.” But the question is: “What will they do about it?”

Like Few, Republicans Meka Childs and Amy Cofield, who entered the race this week, oppose the standards. But they differ on whether the issue will be the central focus of their campaigns.

Childs, who recently resigned as a deputy superintendent in the state Department of Education, was a member of the state Education Oversight Committee that, along with the state Board of Education, agreed to adopt Common Core in 2010. Childs voted against the standards.

That “speaks for itself,” she said Wednesday. “When it was time to act, I did.”

Cofield, a Lexington attorney, highlighted her opposition to Common Core as she announced her candidacy Tuesday, later saying if she were elected, she would “hope I could find some way to stop it.”

Opponents say the standards were developed without public input and reflect a special-interest education agenda that has been forced upon states by the federal government. They say the standards are mediocre but also challenge young children in ways that are “developmentally inappropriate.”

Supporters say the standards were state-developed, voluntarily adopted, are clear and rigorous, and challenge students to engage in critical thinking and problem solving, preparing them for careers, college and competing globally.

Candidates weigh Common Core

Montrio Belton of Fort Mill, one of two Democrats running for the superintendent, said Common Core sets “good, rigorous standards,” adding the standards should not dominate the campaign but likely will.

“How do we extend Internet access to kids? What is (school) choice going to look like? How are we going to measure teacher effectiveness? All of these are more important issues in South Carolina than Common Core,” said Belton, a former public-school principal and teacher who also worked in the Education Department for a year under Republican schools Superintendent Mick Zais, who is not seeking re-election.

Democratic state Rep. Mike Anthony of Union, a retired football coach and teacher, said, “Common Core is great, in theory. But we won’t know how well it actually works until it is fully implemented and assessed next school year. I’m willing to give it a shot until the experts — our teachers, not some political group — tell me it’s not working. If that happens, we’ll move in another direction.”

Republican Few says she leads the pack in opposing Common Core.

“I’ve been on the road for 12 months traveling the state, talking about Common Core when it wasn’t a popular issue, even when I was debated by some Republicans,” she said.

Few recently formed a political action committee that paid for anti-Common Core robo-calls to residents in the districts of four state senators whom she sees as impeding progress on a bill to void Common Core: Hayes; Ray Cleary, R-Georgetown; Luke Rankin, R-Horry; and Senate Majority Leader Harvey Peeler, R-Cherokee.

Sheila Quinn, a deputy superintendent for the Clover school district, told senators Wednesday the robo-call described Common Core as an “anti-Christian, one-size-fits-all, left-wing” effort.

The robo-call included an option that allowed residents to automatically call their lawmaker, and Cleary’s dentistry practice received between 100 and 125 calls last Tuesday.

“That’s not the way you get people to look at you favorably,” Cleary told The State Wednesday, adding he already had planned to co-sponsor the bill opposing Common Core. “The minimum (Few) could have done is call to apologize.”

Few said she tried to apologize to Cleary’s partner and to get a message to Cleary.

What is Common Core?

Common Core’s education standards in math and English outline what students should know and be able to do at each grade level; the standards are designed to prepare students for careers and college

Common Core was created by the Council of Chief State School Officers and the National Governors Association with input from educators and the public

It has been adopted by 45 states, including South Carolina; in S.C, it has been approved by two education boards, appointed by lawmakers and the governor

It would be voided in South Carolina under pending legislation in the House and Senate

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