Members of the Senate and House Education Committees are spending two days hearing testimony regarding the Common Core State Standards, the K-12 standards in English language arts and math that are being adopted by Arkansas and 45 other states. Monday was devoted mostly to hearing from opponents.

Witnesses, including education experts and members of the citizen group Arkansas Against Common Core, testified before the committee against the initiative. Among their complaints was that it will result in too much federal control of education, that the standards weren’t tested before being adopted, that they were developed by private interests in a non-transparent fashion, and that students’ privacy will be compromised.

Initiated by the National Governors Association and the Council of Chief State School Officers, the Common Core was adopted by the Arkansas State Board of Education in July 2010. Since then, policymakers and schools across Arkansas have been making the transition. The Common Core now forms the basis for English language arts and math in grades K-8 and will be adopted in grades 9-12 this school year.

Arkansas will begin testing students in 2014-15. A number of states received federal Race to the Top funds to implement the Common Core, but Arkansas was not one of them.

Supporters of Common Core say it will offer more rigorous standards than the current ones, and that its focus is narrower and deeper. They say a common set of national standards is needed in a mobile, modern society that is competing internationally.

However, Dr. Sandra Stotsky, a retired professor of education reform at the University of Arkansas’ Department of Education Reform, criticized the Common Core’s emphasis in English on informational texts at the expense of literature. She said educators had too little involvement in the Common Core’s creation.

Questions arose about how much flexibility Arkansas will have to change the standards. Not much, said Joy Pullmann, a research fellow with The Heartland Institute, a nonprofit research and education organization that promotes school choice-based solutions, and Neal McCluskey, associate director of the Center for Educational Freedom at the libertarian Cato Institute. They said that states can’t change the standards and can only add 15 percent to the requirements. McCluskey said giving parents more control over their children’s education was better than what he said was Common Core’s one-size-fits-all approach.

Rep. Charlotte Vining Douglas (R-Alma) pressed Education Commissioner Dr. Tom Kimbrell on why Arkansas was moving forward with a nationwide set of standards that had never been tested. In response, Kimbrell said the state was taking advantage of the economies of scale offered by a combined effort. Douglas was not swayed.

“This was not a pilot program. … Everybody just jumped in and hoped that it would work,” she said.

She later said that some teachers had told her they liked the Common Core.

Talk Business Arkansas reported last week that only a small percentage of the state’s school districts have adequate bandwidth for certain education needs, including the Common Core, which will conduct all of its tests online. One group, the Quality Digital Learning Study Committee, is attacking the problem from an education perspective, while another, FASTER, is looking at it from a private sector perspective. Kimbrell testified that the state should be able to address the problem regarding Common Core.

But Little Rock teacher Virginia Wyeth disputed that notion, saying that in her school, there’s only one computer per classroom.

“We do not have the infrastructure to support this megalithic testing machine,” she said.

Wyeth said that schools already have too much testing, and that 35-40 of her teaching days were lost or diminished last year due to testing. She said that the money that will be spent on Common Core’s increased testing could be better spent elsewhere.

Grace Lewis, a Searcy nurse and mother, testified that the standards should have been presented to the American people in a more transparent and accessible way. She said the effort is part of a long-running effort to institute more federal government control over public schools.

Legislators Tuesday will hear from a lineup of speakers, many of which will be more supportive of the standards.

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Steve Brawner

Steve Brawner

Steve Brawner is a freelance journalist and contributor to Talk Business & Politics. He is also a syndicated columnist in 10 Arkansas newspapers. You can email him at brawnersteve@mac.com or follow him on Twitter: @SteveBrawner.