GOP leaders play defense on Common Core standards

Jim Galloway Political Insider

Only the most elastic imagination could conceive of state Sen. Fran Millar of Dunwoody, a man of direct and sometimes caustic temperament, as a wide-eyed little Dutch boy.

Yet this coming weekend, Millar will head to Athens and try to hold back the educational revolt that threatens to wash over a two-day state GOP convention.

“I’ll get booed. No doubt about it,” he said. “But I’ll be there.”

The talk has been building for months, and not just in Georgia.

On Facebook, on Twitter, and in meetings at schools and churches, the most conservative elements of Republicanism have decided that a (relatively) new set of national educational standards called Common Core is an effort by President Barack Obama and other liberals to federalize education in the United States.

Forty-five states, including Georgia, have already spent millions of dollars orienting their armies of elementary and high school teachers so that — as supporters argue — algebra in Marietta, Ga., is the same as algebra in Hobo-ken, N.J.

The hundreds of GOP delegates who gather at the edge of the University of Georgia campus Friday and Saturday are all but certain to consider a resolution demanding that Georgia withdraw from Common Core.

Millar will try to block it but doesn’t expect many to join him. “What bothers me is, where are the Republicans with guts to stand up here? It’s been awful quiet,” Millar said. “They’re running scared.”

See? In story books, young Dutch boys are far more polite.

Millar is willing to cut true believers — including some of his colleagues in the Senate — some slack. He has less patience for those who back Common Core, know how it came to be and yet have still kept their heads down.

“It’s not ObamaCore. It started in 2007. You had 30 Republican governors involved in it at the time,” Millar said. “It’s not a curriculum. It doesn’t tell you how to teach. It tells you that you’ve got to know this stuff when you get to third grade, no matter where you are.”

Millar understands that Obama “co-opted” Common Core for his education initiative, Race to the Top, requiring states to adopt the standards in order to be eligible for the multimillion-dollar federal contest that encouraged innovation in schools. Georgia was one of the states that won the cash.

But that’s no reason to dismiss the standards as a conspiracy stirred up by Bill Ayres, the former Weather Underground radical — as some have done, Millar said. “You’ve got people from our Department of Education participating in these discussions. They’re at the table,” he said.

The bottom line is that Georgia needs higher educational goals, he said, pointing out that 40 percent of Georgia high schools earned “D’s and F’s” in a new grading system released by the state this week.

“And that’s with inflated scores,” Millar said. “We’ve got individual schools that are wonderful. In aggregate, we’re in the middle of the pack at best.”

Ranking Republicans have made some efforts to take the edge off the coming Athens revolt. Last weekend, state School Superintendent John Barge spoke to a suspicious breakfast crowd of Cobb County Republicans.

Barge was on the defensive and spent the first seven minutes explaining that neither he nor Gov. Nathan Deal were responsible for Georgia’s participation in Common Core. “Previous superintendent, previous governor,” he said.

The state school superintendent assured the crowd that there would be no Common Core effort to rewrite history books.

Standards currently exist only for math and literature. Science benchmarks are in the works.

But Barge emphasized to his fellow Republicans that the Legislature was not the place to go if they’re worried about what is being taught in Georgia schools. “Statutorily, that authority rests with the state Board of Education. The state board approves curriculum,” he said.

In the audience was Scott Johnson, a newly appointed member of the state school board. He’s asked the Georgia Public Policy Foundation, a conservative think tank, to examine Common Core this summer and separate truth from fantasy. “I want an honest broker to look at this thing,” John-son said. “I’d be satisfied with that.”

Late last month, the governor attempted to tamp down GOP worries over Common Core. “The federal government did not mandate it, they did not control it, they did not dictate its content,” Deal said.

That has not been enough. This week, before the gathering in Athens, Deal will issue an executive order formally laying down his ground rules for Common Core in Georgia.

The order will prohibit education standards imposed by the federal government. But as we discussed, Common Core is a national movement, not a federal mandate.

All decisions regarding how to help students reach Common Core standards will be made at the local school board level.

Most important, Deal’s order will prohibit the collection of any student data not directly related to education — religion and party affiliation, for instance.

Not that this collection is currently happening. And Georgia, our state school superintendent assures us, shares no Common Core data with other states that would identify any student.

But when a cracking dam threatens, you never know which finger will stop the leak.