ND lawmakers hear five hours of arguments on bill to withdraw from Common Core

BISMARCK - Education and business leaders spoke out Monday against a bill that would sever North Dakota's ties to the Common Core education standards and replace them with standards developed by a group overseen by state lawmakers.
Leah Peterson of Fargo , center, holds a pile of more than 1,400 signed petitions protesting implementation of Common Core that were presented to the House education committee on Feb. 2, 2015. Peterson, of Fargo, is sitting in the packed Brynhild Haugland Room of the state capitol during a hearing on HB 1461, a bill that would do away with North Dakota involvement with Common Core standards. TOM STROMME / Bismarck Tribune

BISMARCK – Education and business leaders spoke out Monday against a bill that would sever North Dakota’s ties to the Common Core education standards and replace them with standards developed by a group overseen by state lawmakers.

More than 200 parents, educators and others packed the Capitol’s largest hearing room for the debate on House Bill 1461. Some spectators wore red or gray T-shirts declaring their stance against Common Core, while others donned blue stickers stating “Kids first: Keep ND standards high.”

Marc Bluestone, superintendent in New Town on the Fort Berthold Indian Reservation, said the district’s nearly 800 K-12 students have shown steady improvement in test results in math and English language arts since adoption of Common Core, and dropping the standards “would be a huge mistake.”

“To start over on any new state-led initiative would be an obvious waste of resources for the district and the staff,” he testified before the House Education Committee.

The bill’s prime sponsor, Rep. Jim Kasper, R-Fargo, noted several states that adopted the standards have since withdrawn or are considering doing so, saying, “Common Core is unraveling before our eyes.” He said the standards represent an overreach of federal power.

“The decision-making process for the education system in North Dakota no longer rests within our state,” he said.

The bill would require Gov. Jack Dalrymple and state Superintendent of Public Instruction Kirsten Baesler to withdraw by July 1 from the Smarter Balanced Assessment Consortium, one of two multistate consortiums awarded federal funding in 2010 to develop Common Core assessments. North Dakota schools began fully using the standards in 2013-14.

Under the bill, an interim legislative committee would appoint a working group made up of legislators, school administrators, college faculty, teachers, parents and others to develop K-12 state content standards for math and English language arts, at a cost of up to $750,000. The recommendations would go to the 2017 Legislature.

In the meantime, school districts – acting alone or as part of a regional educational association – would have to set content standards and student assessments, which could involve contracting with out-of-state organizations.

Baesler said 70 educators from across the state worked to develop the North Dakota standards based on Common Core, and more than 130 were involved in developing the new assessment.

“Are you really going to tell them that their work is not worthwhile and that a group of legislators and their appointees or their contractors from out of state can do a better job for your students than they can?” she asked.

Forty-five states adopted Common Core, while four didn’t and Minnesota adopted only the English standards. Indiana and Oklahoma dropped the standards last year, and three other states have kept them in place while a revision process begins.

Kasper invited three out-of-state Common Core opponents to testify Monday, including John Sauer, an attorney from St. Louis who said the consortium’s “herding” of states into using the Common Core standards represents an unconstitutional interstate compact not approved by Congress.

Sandra Stotsky, a retired University of Arkansas education professor who served on the original Common Core validation committee but didn’t sign off on the standards, said they aren’t rigorous and they lower the standards for college readiness.

“Common Core’s standards in math and English will retard your students” in preparation for 21st Century jobs, she said.

Several school administrators disagreed. West Fargo Superintendent David Flowers said the standards require higher levels of thinking and application of skills, and provide for better comparison of student performance across states.

“To reinvent the wheel, and thereby potentially be out of alignment with other states, would be foolhardy,” he said.

Wahpeton High School Principal Ned Clooten said the only complaint he’s heard is that the standards are too difficult.

“I don’t believe the supporters of this bill are doing what’s best for kids. They’re doing what they think is best for politics,” he said, drawing audible groans from some bill supporters.

Morgan Forness, president of the North Dakota Association of Nonpublic Schools, said that while it may seem strange to some that private schools are in lock-step with the DPI, the association supports the state standards and opposes the bill’s proposal of interim standards, which he said would be “confusing and pose a huge challenge” to the DPI and schools alike.

Greater North Dakota Chamber President Andy Peterson and Bismarck banker Joe Sheehan both spoke in favor of the standards as a way to better prepare students for the workforce and competition in a global economy.

Jared Hendrix, chairman of the Bismarck-based Liberty ND PAC, delivered a nearly foot-high stack of pink and white petitions containing what he said were the signatures of approximately 1,400 people from across the state opposed to the Common Core standards. The North Dakota Council of Educational Leaders submitted letters from 80 districts in support of the standards, signed by a variety of school board members, administrators, faculty and staff.

Bismarck parent Jerry Ketterling said the repeal of Common Core “is not a partisan issue led by conspiracy theorists,” but rather a desire to have control over standards and testing returned to the local level. He raised concerns about the gathering, aggregation and mining of data collected through the Common Core assessments, and several lawmakers raised questions about it as well, saying they’d heard concerns from constituents.

Testimony on the bill lasted about five hours. The committee’s chairman, Rep. Mike Nathe, said the bill should receive a recommendation sometime this week.

Nathe also has asked Legislative Council for an estimate of what it would cost for the state to develop its own standards assessment from the ground up.

“If we pass this bill, we need to know what we’re getting into financially,” he said.