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Alaska Tea Party launches salvos at Common Core education standards

Pat Forgey

Alaska's tea party coterie are joining their brethren nationwide in expressing fears that new national educational standards called the "Common Core" are part of one more government attack on things they hold dear.

At a Tuesday hearing in Wasilla, the standards and Alaska's involvement with them were called everything from anti-resource-development and Maoist-inspired, to deceptively implemented and even a "Jedi mind trick."

The Wasilla meeting of the House Education Committee chaired by Rep. Lynn Gattis, R-Wasilla, began with the Heartland Institute, a group which says it promotes "ideas that empower people."

The Common Core standards have been questioned by "international experts" said the Institute's Joy Pullmann.

Some of her concerns ranged from difficulty to implement the testing involved when not all school districts, especially rural ones, have adequate technology for online testing, to a loss of state and local control to national testing groups and the federal government.

"It has no track record anywhere, no one has ever tried it," Pullmann said.

The Heartland Institute receives funding from the Charles Koch Foundation, and has questioned climate change.

State Education Commissioner Mike Hanley started in the defensive, and explained Alaska's limited involvement with Common Core.

Alaska is in no way giving up its sovereignty in using Common Core standards as part of how its measures its students, he said.

"We have a governor, Gov. (Sean) Parnell, who is willing to fiercely stand up for Alaskans' rights,
Hanley said.

That's something he's done in a variety of areas, Hanley said, including on natural resources issues as well as education issues.

The opposition to the Common Core standards has been growing nationally, with many of those who intensely dislike President Obama also intensely disliking the educational improvement effort.

The Washington Post called it the "newest front for the tea party movement."

Hanley said Alaska would not give up its sovereignty. It's very important for Alaskans "to have the ability to control our own destiny, our own resources, and our own educational system," he said.

Alaska has adopted its own educational standards as of a year ago, which are somewhat different than the national standards. Some local districts adopted the national Common Core standards on their own as a way to improve education more than a year before the state adopted its own tougher standards.

But making sure that children in Alaska's schools get as good an education as those elsewhere is important, Hanley said, especially since they'll be competing them for jobs.

"Our kids need to be able to be competitive, not only in the state, but around the country and globally," he said. If Alaska high school graduates aren't able to fill local jobs, others can and do move to the state to take those jobs, he said.

"They have to be able to compete with kids from around the country just for jobs in their own backyard," he said.

Examples of standards include that kindergarteners should know their letters and sounds by the end of the year, or that in the eighth grade a student should know some algebraic concepts, he said.

While Alaska didn't join the 45 other states adopting the Common Core standards -- despite a personal solicitation from Microsoft's Bill Gates, Hanley said -- it did join a substitute group. But even then, it was only on a limited basis that protects Alaska's sovereignty, Hanley said.

Instead of joining other states in adopting the Common Core standards, Alaska has instead joined an independent group called the SMARTER Balanced Assessment Consortium, that uses its own standards.

Even then, Hanley said, Alaska only joined in an "advisory" basis. It participates in the SMARTER Balanced group, but takes on no obligations, will help Alaska work towards the consortium's educational improvement goal.

Hanley passed out a copy of the standard agreement that Alaska had signed, showing that the promise to adopt the Common Core standards had been lined-out, with Gov. Parnell initialing the change "SRP" on the document.

Even then, Alaska can quit the group with no strings attached, he said.

Legislators and the audience did not appear mollified, however.

"I'm still a skeptic with regard to Common Core," said Rep. Lora Reinbold, R-Eagle River.

She said it could wind up with the federal government deciding what Alaskan children are taught and one more attempt at federal overreach such as with health care and environmental protection.

"There's too many red flags here to ignore," she said. "How can we be assured we are not going to lose our sovereignty?"

Many of those who spoke from the audience identified themselves as older, and without children in school, but said they were speaking on behalf of grandchildren or society as a whole.

Lorie Kappenberg said the Common Core standards were illegal under the Tenth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, which reserves powers not given to the federal government to the states or to the people. Alaska is "giving away its sovereign voice,” she said.

Having anything to do with the Common Core will allow the federal government to reach into states and into local schools, she said.

Implementation of Common Core is already happening, and teachers are being blocked from speaking about it publicly, said Wayne Ozosky.

"Why? This ain't Germany in 1933. They can't even bring this up," he said.

Concerns with who was behind the development of Common Core was common among those in attendance, with the Obama administration, "extreme leftists," and a "self-avowed Maoist," all being blamed for pushing it.

"We've got a problem now with everything from the White House on down that's scaring the hell out of us," said Mike Coons.

Hanley said the Common Core was developed by the National Governors Association, along with an association of top school officers such as the education commissioner, in each state. The cost was funded by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation. The Obama administration has supported improving education nationwide.

Hanley said that Alaska's role in its Common Core group, the SMARTER Balanced group, would not cost state sovereignty.

"I'm not aware of anything we're giving up," he assured the panel.

Contact Pat Forgey at pat@alaskadispatch.com