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Group wants to stop Common Core, restore state tests

PIERRE — The intense struggles under way in the Legislature this winter are about something more than just the new Common Core national standards for math and English-language arts in South Dakota’s public schools.

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This fight is about who’s in charge.

The decision-makers have been the men and women on the state Board of Education and the state secretaries of education who have been appointed to their posts during the past 10 years by then-Gov. Mike Rounds and now Gov. Dennis Daugaard.

They are the latest in an unbroken line of Republican governors that now stretches 35 years.

But those past 10 years also saw Congress and Republican President George W. Bush tell states they must follow the federal No Child Left Behind system for assessing students using each state’s own standards and tests.

Next came the National Governors Association with the Common Core standards as a way to eliminate the variations between states and bring national unity to the testing and the results.

Common Core arrived during the first term of Democratic President Barack Obama, whose administration provided money to help states implement the program.

South Dakota’s state board agreed to adopt Common Core in November 2010 during the last year of Gov. Rounds’ administration. The board used its standard process of public notice and a public hearing.

This year the nationally uniform achievement tests called Smarter Balanced will be given for the first time to South Dakota students, in what is a statewide trial run.

Now challenging that established order is a broad group of fundamentally conservative Republican legislators, energized activists, and various parents and grandparents with a variety of complaints, some founded and others less so or not at all.

Their mission is to stop Common Core’s further use, prohibit all national standards in South Dakota in the future, and return to statedeveloped standards and testing.

They want to put their values into place instead and if necessary push aside the Republican establishment that’s been in control of South Dakota’s public school system for 35 years through the governor’s office and to a lesser degree through the Legislature.

At least 10 measures dealing directly with Common Core, whether or not the actual phrase is mentioned, have been introduced in the 2014 legislative session.

With three weeks done and six weeks to go, two of those pieces of legislation are moving forward, while four are already dead, and four await their first hearings.

Republicans are the prime sponsors for every one of those nine bills and one resolution.

Because these are challenges to their party’s governor, however, the 53-member Republican majority in the House and the 28-member Republican majority in the Senate have tended to be split on this matter.

That’s meant Democrats, who have 17 members in the House and seven in the Senate, have been the deciders, with measures passing or failing based on how they vote.

Sen. Ernie Otten, a first-term Republican from Tea, brought the first three bills affecting Common Core. Each received a different response.

Otten found widespread Senate support for protecting individual students’ private information and data. The Senate approved SB 63 on a 34-0 vote.

Democrats generally deserted Otten on SB 64 that would establish a longer decision-making process for new standards. The Senate vote was 28-6.

Otten lost on SB 62, which attempted to establish a state council to evaluate Common Core. He saw a combination of many Republicans, including the most prominent opponents of Common Core, and all of the Democrats, vote against it for opposite reasons.

The legislation initially called for $100,000 to pay for the two-year review. The amount was amended to $1 as a procedural move, but even a $1 appropriation meant a two-thirds majority was need.

The vote was 18-16, well short of the 24 majority necessary. The Democrats’ Larry Lucas, of Mission, said there wasn’t any reason to take a second look at Common Core. The Republicans’ anti-Common Core leader David Omdahl, of Sioux Falls, said it was a waste of money.