SALT LAKE CITY — A bill meant to quell the lingering fight over the Common Core State Standards gained committee approval Monday after a significant overhaul of the bill language.
During presentation of the bill, HB342, sponsor Rep. Dana Layton, R-Orem, said she was exhausted with jet lag from traveling between two universes: one where the Common Core is a progressive series of education standards and another where it is a sinister federal takeover of local schools.
The Common Core State Standards are a series of benchmarks that define the minimum skills a student should learn in each grade and have been voluntarily adopted by all but five states. They were created by a coalition of state officials and education experts, but critics nonetheless view the standards as a federal intrusion into local control of education.
Layton said her bill is an attempt to formally establish that Utah has control over its education standards and assuage the fears of some parents that the State Board of Education had ceded control to federal powers.
"My concern is with Utah having control over its own education system and exercising that control in the best way possible for Utah students," she said.
Layton's original HB342 mandated that the State School Board develop and adopt a new set of mathematics standards, effectively withdrawing from the Common Core. But her bill was wholly substituted Monday after Layton received feedback from the education community on the false impression of many Common Core opponents and the constitutional powers of the State School Board.
The new version of HB342 would create several committees of parents and teachers who would regularly review and provide feedback on the state's educational standards, but final approval and adoption would remain vested in the State School Board.
"I came to a different approach on this and that is I think parents who are alarmed are mostly alarmed because they have a perception, whether that is accurate or not is up to anyone’s perception," Layton said.
But many of the arguments cited by Layton — for example, that the state is unable to withdraw from or alter the standards — have been largely disproved by both hypothetical legal analysis and practical experience.
In 2012, legislative counsel testified to the Education Interim Committee that the state was free to withdraw from the standards themselves or any affiliated testing consortiums. Last year, the State School Board added instruction on handwriting and cursive to the English language arts standards for elementary students.
Common Core was debated extensively by lawmakers during the 2012 interim — to the point that Sen. Aaron Osmond, R-South Jordan, expressed that the issue had been discussed "ad nauseum" — but those meetings all preceded Layton joining the Utah House in January 2013.
Beyond the question of whether the Common Core is good or bad, some in the education community worried that Layton's original bill represents an inappropriate breach of government checks and balances.
The powers of the State School Board — including the establishment of statewide curriculum standards — are enumerated in the Utah Constitution. During a meeting last month of the State School Board, Vice Chairman Dave Thomas took issue with Layton, a member of one constitutional body, trying to alter the role of another constitutional body.
"We get concerned when another branch (of government) tries to tell us how to use our constitutional power," Thomas said.
At the same meeting, board member Leslie Castle suggested to Layton that she begin by addressing the public's perception of the Utah Legislature before moving on to public education.
"The State Board of Education is not the only body in this state that has a PR problem," Castle said. "We’re working on ours. I would ask you to work on yours."
During Monday's committee hearing, it appeared that the substitute HB342 represented a more palatable piece of legislation for the education community.
State Superintendent Martell Menlove said the State School Board had not yet had an opportunity to review the new bill — it formaly opposed the original HB342 — but he believed it would lead to greater parental participation in the standards review process.
"We need to do a better job of inviting parents in, and I belive this bill does that," he said.
Menlove also expressed some concern with the bill, particularly some of the language that would disrupt the State Office of Education's currently established schedule for the review of standards. He also said that the number of committee members the bill calls for — comprising several individual committees based on subject matter — would present a staffing and management challenge for the state office.
"I didn’t ever envision that there would be seven or eight committees functioning at the same time," Menlove said.
While the changes made to the bill addressed the concerns of educators, it drew criticism from opponents of the Common Core.
"I drove all the way down here to support this bill, but I find that I can't support the substitute," Tiffany Hess said. "We have got to, as a state, find a way to be independent."
The bill was approved in a 7-5 vote of the committee. It will now go before the House for consideration.