The education community scored a victory Wednesday when state lawmakers in the House killed a measure that would have eliminated the Common Core math and English standards used to guide teaching.
Wednesday’s vote, however, may not be the end of the road for the effort to rid the state of Common Core. Critics of the standards have indicated a desire to pursue a ballot measure.
House Bill 1461, sponsored by Rep. Jim Kasper, R-Fargo, would have tasked a committee appointed by legislators to develop new standards. It also would have required North Dakota to withdraw from the Smarter Balanced Assessment Consortium, an organization developing standardized tests based off Common Core.
Rep. Ben Koppelman, R-West Fargo, requested an unusual move to divide the measure into two parts instead of holding a single vote on the entire bill.
The showdown on the House floor lasted nearly an hour and a half before a majority of lawmakers narrowly defeated the section requiring the state to withdraw from the Smarter Balanced consortium. That section failed 43-46 before all 89 members rejected the rest of the bill.
Legislators who wanted North Dakota to remain in the consortium said withdrawing from Smarter Balanced would have conflicted with federal law and could put the state in jeopardy of losing federal funds.
Rep. Cynthia Schreiber Beck, R-Wahpeton, said the state could lose $3.4 million in Title VI money that benefits rural schools, as well as $100,000 in Title I funds to help low-income students.
Rep. Mike Nathe, who chairs the House Education Committee, said he is not willing to risk that money. The Republican from Bismarck said federal law requires states to have high academic standards and annual assessments.
By not complying with federal law, North Dakota opens itself to a civil rights investigation by failing to provide equal instruction to students based on their race, gender and special needs, he said.
“We need to have these assessments,” he said. “I am not willing to risk a civil rights lawsuit.”
Koppelman refuted concerns about losing federal money. North Dakota could develop its own standardized test as the state had done for years prior to the implementation of the Smarter Balanced exams this spring, he said.
The state received federal funds when it administered its own test, he said.
“We never were told that, with our state-run assessment, we were going to lose federal funding for minorities and for low income and for special needs children,” he said.
Some lawmakers spoke about benefits to staying in the Smarter Balanced consortium. By administering the same test as other states, North Dakota will know how its students stack up, said. Rep. Eliot Glassheim, D-Grand Forks.
“When you’re in the consortium, you can compare your results with kids in other states,” he said. “If you are just evaluating yourself, well, you don’t know really how you’re doing.”
But other legislators said North Dakota’s membership in the consortium hinders the state's ability to control its education system.
North Dakota is one of 18 states, plus a U.S. territory, that have become governing members of Smarter Balanced. Each member has an equal vote in consortium decisions about the development of the tests.
“For the content of the assessments to be decided by this consortium … will have a powerful effect on the curriculum our state employs to do well on these assessments,” said Rep. Christopher Olson, R-West Fargo. “This amounts to an incredible concession of state sovereignty and decision-making ability with regard to assessments and, therefore, curriculum.”
He said the bill’s backers recognized the rest of the measure had flaws, which is why they requested a separate vote on severing ties with Smarter Balanced.
Nathe said withdrawing from the consortium would cost the state $350,000.
The education community largely supported Smarter Balanced and Common Core at a hearing last week. State Superintendent Kirsten Baesler and organizations representing teachers, school administrators, school boards private schools, as well as the North Dakota Chamber of Commerce, have spoken out against eliminating the tests and standards.
After Wednesday's vote, Baesler said she was pleased the House rejected the remainder of the measure as she had concerns about removing the authority over education decisions from her office.
The state superintendent is responsible for supervising the development of standards. The bill proposed limiting the superintendent's role to participating in their development while charging a committee appointed by lawmakers with the task of creating new standards.
Baesler also acknowledged the controversy surrounding Common Core that has brewed over the past few years.
"There was an obvious disconnect in communication with our community," she said. "I vow to improve that engagement."
The bill’s proponents — including parents, community members and national experts critical of Common Core — have contended the federal government and big business played too big a role in developing the standards. They have also expressed concern over the collection of student data.