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Skeptics keep up pressure against Alaska Common Core education standards

Pat Forgey

JUNEAU -- The nation's new Common Core educational standards came in for criticism at a legislative education hearing this week, and there was discussion of Alaska's new education standards as well.

But what wasn't clear was just how linked the national and state standards are and what exactly is the relationship between the two.

The new Common Core standards have been an increasing focus of tea party movement concerns, and Senate and House Education Committee meetings during the legislative interim may foreshadow more clashes when the session begins later this month.

Education expert Sandra Stotsky warned the Senate Education Committee this week that the Common Core is not about improving education but undermining state control of education.

"This is not about education," she said. "Common Core is about centralized control of education in Washington, D.C. I'm sure Alaska legislators have recognized that," she said.

Stotsky is a professor emeritus at the University of Arkansas Department of Education Reform who served on the Common Core validation committee. She said she was one of a handful of members of the committee who refused to sign off on the standards as being validated and was invited to testify in Alaska.

She found some receptive legislators in Alaska, with Sen. Mike Dunleavy, R-Wasilla, and Rep. Lora Reinbold, R-Eagle River, asking skeptical questions about Alaska's involvement with Common Core.

Teachers, students and education leaders testified during sessions Tuesday and Wednesday that national standards are important so Alaskans can be assured their children are learning what they need to know for when they go on to look for work or further education, either at the University of Alaska or elsewhere.

Anchorage's Juan San Miguel, president-elect of the Alaska PTA, said adopting standards that are as tough as the national standards would tell Alaska parents that their children are getting the same level of education as they are in the rest of the U.S.

"Common Core standards are a first step in leveling the playing field to ensure that all students, regardless of geography, are held to the same high expectations," he said.

Many states adopted the Common Core as their own standards, as did some Alaska school districts, but Alaska did not, said Education Commissioner Mike Hanley.

Instead, Alaska adopted its own standards.

"Alaska didn't adopt the Common Core; we have the Alaska standards in English, language arts and mathematics," he said.

Hanley said that meant he couldn't defend the national standards from Stotsky's criticisms.

"She had concerns about validation of Common Core," he said. "I can't speak to the validation of Common Core, but I can speak to the validation of our own standards."

Alaska standards were developed by Alaska educators and reviewed by University of Alaska experts.

But under questioning from Dunleavy, Hanley acknowledged that there wasn't that much difference between Alaska's standards and the Common Core, calling them "substantially similar." And Hanley defended having a substantially similar standards for Alaska's children.

"We wanted to make sure we weren't setting a lower bar than the rest of the country," he said.

But Alaska retains complete control of its standard, he said, and neither the federal government or any outside group can tell Alaska what should or shouldn't be in its standards.

Some of the national opposition to Common Core has linked it to tea party movement nemesis President Barack Obama, but Hanley said the nationwide effort originated with states.

Funding came from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation as part of its efforts to see that high school graduates are better prepared for college.

Stotsky called that "a big corporation buying the entire education system." Bill Gates was one of the founders of Microsoft Corp.

But Hanley's assurances about the goals of Alaska's standards and the local control of implementation didn't soften soften the concerns of the Alaska opponents.

"Alaska's new standards are simply Common Core with a different label," said Maria Rensel, founder of the Interior Alaska Conservative Coalition.

She said the standards were aimed at indoctrinating children with different values than those in their communities. Under the standards, there are reports that schools will be teaching pornography, and teaching global warming as a fact, Rensel said.

Sen. Berta Gardner, D-Anchorage, questioned that, and asked for specifics that Rensel couldn't provide.

Rep. Reinbold, sitting in with the committee, also had another concern of her own.

She questioned why the nation and state were making such big changes before other countries had adopted the Common Core and determined that it worked.

"People keep wanting us to invest in proven outcomes," she said.

Hanley said the test of outcomes can't be identical to other countries, but Common Core is intended to be the equivalent of standards in highly-regarded education systems such as in Singapore and Finland.

But Reinbold said they "don't want another faulty math program that parents are so incredibly frustrated with."

Contact Pat Forgey at pat(at)alaskadispatch.com.