GRAND FORKS – Some tension over Common Core educational standards has been growing in North Dakota as supporters and detractors plan how they’ll approach the legislative session starting Jan. 6.

On the heels of a recent letter to the editor, legislators and the president of the Greater North Dakota Chamber traded heated correspondence over “misinformation” and intentions behind the standards, according to emails.

“It’s not the fact that you support Common Core; it’s the ham-handed, deceptive manner you employed in your support,” wrote Rep. Rick Becker, R-Bismarck, in an email sent Monday. “That approach is to avoid constructive arguments on the merits of the policy, and to use ‘personal politics,’ subterfuge, and an abundance of logical fallacies.”

The topic has been a controversial one across the nation but more noticeable in North Dakota this past year, as more schools have been applying the K-12 standards for English language arts, math and science.

Most have turned to newspaper opinion pages to vent their concern, but the group Stop Common Core in North Dakota has also held events. Next month, a public rally is planned at the Capitol, according to organizer Leah Peterson of Fargo. Membership in the group is small but growing, with a Facebook page that currently has 2,482 followers, she said.

“It never ceases to amaze me the new people that come forward,” she said.

Legislator emails

Passion over the standards has become clear in those emails between legislators and Andy Peterson, president of the Greater North Dakota Chamber.

Legislators were responding to a Dec. 21 letter to the editor about Common Core standards written by Peterson and the leaders of other state education organizations.

Only a handful of legislators and Peterson traded emails, though the exchange was on display for the entire legislative body.

Three legislators – Rep. Gary Paur, R-Gilby, Sen. Dick Dever, R-Bismarck and Rep. Jim Kasper, R-Fargo – wrote about their concern student data would be transferred to the federal government.

Kasper asked Peterson if he and others would support a bill that restricts the sharing of all individual student data to entities only within North Dakota, including vendors and the Department of Education. Peterson said the suggestion was “preposterous” because it would block student access to a host of tests including the SAT and ACT.

“The most immediate and egregious setback would be that North Dakota high school graduates would find entrance into a college or university of their choice almost impossible,” he said. “Moreover, entrance into our nation’s military ranks or schools would also be beyond reach. This is untenable to students, their parents, and the North Dakota business community.”

Kasper recently drafted a bill that would require the state to essentially withdraw from the Smarter Balanced Assessment Consortium – and likewise its use of Common Core standards – by July 1 and create its own. North Dakota is among several states in two consortiums that were awarded funding from the U.S. Department of Education to help develop a testing system aligned with the standards.

The rest of the brief exchange included a long email from Becker, pointing out the “logical fallacies” of Peterson’s letter to the editor.

In the letter, Peterson and others wrote they understand that critics of Common Core are passionate, but that “does not entitle them to revise history, discredit our well-qualified educators or make up their own ‘facts.’”

“In North Dakota, 60 teachers spent two years vetting the standards to ensure their successful integration and respect for our history and cultural heritage,” they wrote. “The decision was made by the Legislature, signed by then-Gov. John Hoeven, and implemented by our Department of Public Instruction.”

Becker said he was disappointed by Peterson’s response to the data privacy question and also by his letter. Peterson should have explained the weaknesses of creating state standards, which can be updated and improved without limit, he wrote. Becker also wrote that Peterson should have calculated and compared the cost of continuing with the standards versus choosing the state’s own and also explained how federal standards would benefit North Dakota.

“Once all of the logical fallacies are stripped away, it comes down to a couple simple points of dissent,” he wrote. “We all want the best education for our kids. Both sides want strong standards. Your position should support why North Dakota shouldn’t go with its own standards if they are an improvement over Common Core.”

Loss of local control?

Stop Common Core in North Dakota has also been working to spread the word before the start of the session.

Leah Peterson of Fargo, who has three young children, said she’s most concerned about the standards’ “developmentally inappropriateness” of K-3 education and the loss of local control, among other aspects.

“As far as curriculum goes, it’s being narrowed down by the day,” she said. “What they’re doing is centralizing control and it removes parents from the education process completely.”

The group has arranged for nationally recognized anti-Common Core speakers to visit Fargo and Bismarck in addition to its monthly meetings across the state, which are attended by anywhere from 15 to 70 people.

Near Harvey, N.D., 30 people showed up for its first informational meeting in November and 70 people showed up the following two nights, said Renae Ahlberg, group member. So far, few people there have been supportive of it, but it’s also been difficult to entice teachers to speak for or against it at meetings, she said.

Since Ahlberg learned about Common Core in May, she’s removed her children from school and has been holding meetings near Harvey and Cando, N.D., she said.

Supporters of the standards have formed a new coalition called North Dakotans for Student Success, which includes the teachers’ union, North Dakota United, and the Greater North Dakota Chamber. They’ve also visited newspaper editorial boards and have written letters to the editor, and many businesses in the state have come forward publicly with their support, said Aimee Copas, executive director of North Dakota Council of Educational Leaders.

“There has been a tremendous amount of misinformation out there regarding how we got here with the state standards, as well as misunderstandings regarding the required state assessment,” she wrote in an email. “There have been many ‘experts’ that have come into our state and into our communities and have stated things that are not factual when considering North Dakota and have worried our great citizens unnecessarily. A small group of our state legislative representatives that are opposed to our current model of assessment and standards have come to an understanding that is not correct in the industry of education – and despite our best efforts, continue to state things that may continue to create more misunderstanding.”

Both sides said they want the best education standards for children and hope for the best this session. Leah Peterson said she doesn’t believe Kasper’s bill is perfect, but she thinks “it’s a good start.”

Jon Martinson, executive director of the North Dakota State School Boards Association, said he fully expects a packed hearing when the bill is discussed but doesn’t expect legislators to agree to it.

“Legislators certainly care about the best interest of students in North Dakota, and I think in the end the bill to withdraw from the Common Core will fail,” he said.

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