Fuzzy Common-Core Warfare in Oklahoma Could Cement a Precedent

By Andrew Ujifusa — March 27, 2014 5 min read
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UPDATED: The Oklahoma Senate passed House Bill 3399, which I wrote about below last week, by a 37-10 vote on April 1, the Oklahoma news station KFOR reported. As I write below, how Gov. Mary Fallin (R) will deal with the bill is an interesting question, given her prior vigorous support for the common core. But as for other common-core supporters, the State Chamber of Oklahoma said, in reaction to the bill passing the senate, “Common Core puts high school students on track for college or a career while House Bill 3399 sets back the cause of rigorous standards in Oklahoma.”

As KFOR reported, the legislation won’t be sent to the governor just yet, since the House still needs to review changes to the legislation made by senators.

Although Indiana has generated many headlines in recent days for being the first state to drop its 2010 adoption of the common core, friends of the English/language arts and math standards might actually have additional cause for worry right now in Oklahoma. But just what the bill will ultimately mean is unclear.

The source of the heartburn is the state’s House Bill 3399, which both the full House and the Senate education committee in Oklahoma have passed. It would require the state board of education to “adopt revisions to the subject matter standards adopted by the State Board for English Language Arts and Mathematics.” In plain English, that means the state would technically have to void its 2010 adoption of the common core and replace it with another set of standards, after consulting with the State Regents for Higher Education and other state agencies. These new standards would have to be adopted by Aug. 1, 2015, according to the version of the bill passed by the Senate committee.

The bill also would bar the state and any state official from entering into any sort of agreement with a federal agency or private entity “which in any way cedes or limits state discretion or control over the development, adoption, or revision of subject matter standards and student assessments in the public school system.” That seems to be directed at the fact that the Council of Chief State School Officers and the National Governors Association oversaw the multi-state development of the common core. But those two groups aren’t mentioned by name in the legislation, except where previous statutory language has been crossed out.

“The [state] Board shall maintain independence of all subject matter standards and student assessments in the state by rejecting any efforts to subject Oklahoma standards and assessments to national or standardized controls in violation of this section,” the bill also states. Here’s the full bill, which was sponsored in the House by GOP Rep. Jeff Hickman and in the Senate by GOP Sen. Josh Brecheen, as passed by the Senate committee:

The news media in Oklahoma has been reporting this effort as a move to “abolish” the common core in the state. And the thrust of the bill certainly undermines the standards as they now stand in Oklahoma. Brecheen said the legislation ensures that Oklahoma’s standards exceed those of common core. But if you read the bill, common core itself only appears where it’s been deleted from the statute, like the CCSSO and the NGA. Unlike other state legislation that directly repeal the common-core standards and bar them from being implemented, there’s no such straightforward directive in the language of this bill.

So if this bill becomes law, where does that leave the state? It’s possible that it could lead the state to follow the path Indiana is taking, in which Oklahoma would mix common core with other standards in order to create new standards unique to the state. (To some, that might seem like largely a rebranding of common core.) Or it could lead the state to leave out common core from its new standards altogether.

Professional Oklahoma Educators, an association of teachers that’s not a labor union, touches on this issue. In a March 26 email to members, the group states that the legislation “purports” to repeal the standards and adds, “The bill does delete common core from the statute ... but in the bill it gives the power to the state board of education to set the new standards. What some other states are doing are taking the common-core standards and renaming them.”

If Oklahoma decides to create new content standards, those concerned about the process through which common core was adopted might be somewhat or largely mollified by the bill. But for those who dislike the standards themselves, they may be disappointed. Could this become a template for successful common-core pushback in states?

In any event, the state would have approximately one year to come up with new English/language arts and math standards, which Professional Oklahoma Educators says is an “extremely difficult” timeline.

I said if the bill becomes law, because if recent history is any guide, Gov. Mary Fallin (R) won’t look kindly on the legislation. Fallin has been a firm and vocal supporter of the common core. However, after the Senate committee approved an amended version of the House bill, Fallin reportedly released a statement in which she doesn’t seem particularly hostile to the legislation.

In the statement the governor said, in part, “As we work to raise the bar in our schools, it is essential that higher academic standards are developed and implemented by and for Oklahomans. We have no interest in relinquishing control over education to the federal government or outside groups.”

I’ve asked a spokesman for Fallin to clarify her position on the bill, but have not received a response. Having approved an executive order last year that nominally stiff-armed any attempts from non-Oklahomans to control the state’s education standards, Fallin seems keenly aware of the hostility to the common core from conservatives.

For an overview of how Republican governors see common core, Mike McShane of the American Enterprise Institute has a summary. You can see that McShane has Fallin in the unqualified “Thumbs Up” category.

Both Fallin and state Superintendent Janet Barresi (R) are up for re-election this year.

A version of this news article first appeared in the State EdWatch blog.