Turmoil in Oklahoma classrooms: Six potential ‘unintended consequences’ of signing HB 3399

Governor Mary Fallin is in an unenviable position. If she vetoes HB 3399, which would repeal the Common Core and revert back to Oklahoma’s old standards, she faces backlash from the Legislature that wrote and passed the bill as well as from the activists and others who spurred them on. If she signs it, on the other hand, the political price may be lower but the impact on Oklahoma schools could be significant.

In a document I coauthored with former Oklahoma Secretary of Education Dr. Phyllis Hudecki, we analyze the potential impact of this bill. First and foremost, if the governor signs the bill, Oklahoma’s old standards, which do not fully prepare students for college or career readiness, will be put back in place. If that happens, there is a real risk that Oklahoma could lose its waiver from provisions of the No Child Left Behind law. Ironically, this move to get away from mostly imagined federal interference in the Common Core would result in significantly more real intervention because Oklahoma, unlike other states that have made changes to the standards, would immediately revert back to a set of standards that most recognize as falling short of college and career readiness. If Oklahoma loses its waiver, perhaps 1629 Oklahoma schools could be closed, converted to a charter, have their principal and half of their staff replaced or taken over by the state Department of Education.

Here are some highlights from our impact analysis and, specifically, six potential consequences of signing the bill into law:

1. The Fiscal and Educational Costs of Repeal

Indiana, the first state to withdraw from Common Core, provides a good case study on true fiscal costs of repeal. A report from the nonpartisan Legislative Services Agency estimates new testing may cost as much as $26 million more per year and require $2,000 in training per teacher. New assessments are estimated to cost between $44 and $54 per student, double the cost of the two national consortia’s college- and career-ready assessments. In total, the change could cost upwards of $125 million.

A harder cost to quantify is the impact repeal will have within the classroom. For nearly four years, teachers and students have been preparing for the Common Core Standards. A sudden departure from that course will create greater uncertainty in curriculum planning and inevitably introduce several shifts as schools readjust to Oklahoma’s old standards and then again to new standards in two years (as required by the bill).

2. Avoid a Shortsighted Political Takeover

Under HB 3399, the state Legislature, not the Department of Education, will oversee the formation of the Oklahoma’s new standards, which opens the door to politicization of education policy. While the Board of Education is given official authority to write the new standards, the Legislature explicitly reserves for itself the power to “amend the standards in whole or in part.” HB 3399 provides the right of “legislative review,” wherein lawmakers can reject or even amend standards. The Oklahoman editorial board notes such a provision gives state lawmakers the right to “arbitrarily and unilaterally rewrite those standards at will.”

3. Ready to Compete through Higher Standards

Although Oklahoma’s old standards were high compared to those in place in many states, they left students unprepared to competently step into college and the workforce. In fact, 42 percent of the state’s college-bound freshman end up taking remedial coursework. Of the Oklahoma students who took the ACT college readiness exam in 2013, only 23 percent were ready for college or a career.

4. An Opportunity to Demonstrate Political Courage

On March 21, Governor Fallin issued a statement that said, in part, “I have worked directly with our legislators to accomplish the goals of increasing classroom rigor and accountability while guaranteeing that Oklahoma public education is protected from federal interference.…If [HB 3399] does so, without creating unintended consequences that would hamstring educators or invite more federal influence in education, it will have my support.” In its final form, HB 3399 does not pass the test Governor Fallin herself set just two months ago. Governor Fallin should work with lawmakers to build upon Common Core on the Legislature’s time line, but refuse to return to the status quo.

5. A Political Advantage with Most Voters

A recent report by Republican pollster John McLaughlin, the largest such polling among conservative voters, found that after hearing a neutral description of what Common Core Standards are, nearly two out of three respondents supported them. Even among Republican primary voters, 12 percent were more likely to endorse a candidate who supports high standards over one who criticizes them on political grounds. This reality recently played out publicly in several primary elections, correcting perceptions that opposition to Common Core was a ticket to public office. In Indiana, Ohio, Georgia, Idaho, Arkansas, and North Carolina, and just this week in Alabama, South Dakota, and California, incumbents and challengers who campaigned vigorously against Common Core fell to their opponents who stood up for high standards and measured reform.

6. Opponents Will Not Be Satisfied

One evident lesson from the aftermath in Indiana is that critics will not be appeased by repeal. In fact, Indiana governor Mike Pence’s decision to replace the Common Core seems to have emboldened opponents, who quickly condemned the state-crafted criteria as a watered-down version of those they replaced.

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Certainly Oklahoma, as we’ve said all along, is free to make changes to the standards if it wishes. Even Common Core opponents could find solace in that. But lowering standards and creating uncertainty for teachers, parents, and students does not seem like a recipe for educational excellence. It’s anyone’s guess what Governor Fallin will do. But while the political implications are uncertain, the right policy course has become quite clear.

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