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Maine Gov Responds to 'Common Core' Critics with Executive Order
09/04/2013   Reported By: Jay Field

Gov. Paul LePage today reaffirmed, by executive order, the state's commitment to local control in education, even as it moves forward with implementing national standards known as the "common core." In Maine, common core opponents are gathering signatures to get a referendum on the ballot that would force the state the abandon the standards, which, they say, amount to a federal takeover of state schools. As Jay Field reports, the governor's order appears to be an effort to mollify these opponents, who tend to see eye-to-eye with LePage on most other issues.

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The common core standards were written by officials at the National Governor's Association and the Council of Chief State School Officers. They lay out, broadly, what kids across the country ought to be able to do, in English language arts and math, at each grade level. Local districts figure out the details, such as what curricula, teaching methods and other strategies will get their students where they need to be.

Maine is one of 45 states that have signed onto the common core. But Samantha Warren, spokesperson at the Department of Education, says the state's participation is really just a continuation of the work that began in the late 90s with the Maine Learning Results.

"There have been, you know, periodic revisions," Warren says. "And with those revisions come questions about what that means for local control."

Warren says the governor's executive order is an attempt to answer some of those questions. The federal government, the order states, has no constitutional authority to set learning standards in Maine, or any other state. And it can't determine how children in the state of Maine, or any other state, will be educated.

It's up to local school districts, the order goes on to say, to figure out what classes to offer and how to teach them. I asked Warren if this means Maine is moving away from the common core.

"Not at all," she said. "High standards are something we greatly value in Maine. But at the same time, we need to draw a line and make it clear that those standards are our own and that the implementation of them is entirely a local decision."

LePage's order, though, did little to reassure his common core critics. "It's nothing more than a gesture. It's putting politics with it, really," says Erick Bennett, who runs the Maine Equal Rights Center. Last month, the center launched the nation's first petition drive to undo the common core standards at the ballot box.

Bennett says he isn't opposed to the content of the standards. He just thinks they violate the U.S. Constitution. "So education is not one of those issues that is delegated to the power of the federal government," he says. "What common core does is it violates our 10th Amendment rights, our states' rights."

A conservative Republican, Bennett worked as a contractor on LePage's 2010 campaign for governor. Now, his strict take on the Constitution and the common core has him at odds with the man he briefly worked to elect. Michael Petrilli says that's not a surprise. Petrilli is with the Thomas B. Fordham Institute in Washington.

"It's always been a political football in the past," Petrilli says. "Every other time we've had an attempt at this, there's been a similar reaction from the right wing, from the groups we call Tea Party groups."

A conservative himself, Petrilli supports the common core. So do many other Republican governors, including Louisiana's Bobby Jindahl and New Jersey's Chris Christie.

"We were hoping that the fact that this was a state-led effort, that it was really the governors and state superintendents leading the charge, that that would help," Petrilli says. "I think it does help. But the fact that the Obama administration has taken some steps to encourage the adoption of these standards - that has given an opening to people who say that this is a federal intervention."

Petrilli says that couldn't be further from the truth. Whether it's asking younger students to learn multiplication tables without a calculator, or requiring older students to read the U.S. Constitution, the common core demands a higher level of analytical thinking and problem solving from public school students.

Petrilli says all the political back and forth is distracting people from the real achievement of the common core: that, for many states, it is a big improvement over what they had in place before.


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