Steven Walters: Assembly Republicans brace for war over Common Core

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Steven Walters
Monday, July 7, 2014

If you think a fight broke out over Common Core educational standards in the Capitol earlier this year, think again.

Interviews with dozens of candidates show that it was just a warm-up for the war coming next year over those standards.

No matter who is elected governor, and which party controls the Senate in the 2015-16 session, Assembly Republicans—who all sides privately concede will keep control for the next two years—will push to reverse Wisconsin’s 2010 decision to join most other states in adopting Common Core standards.

Several Assembly Republicans want Wisconsin to join Louisiana and other states that have withdrawn or repealed Common Core standards.

Six of the 14 Assembly Republicans who last session sponsored Senate Bill 619, which would have stopped implementation of Common Core and let legislators control new educational standards, and who drafts them, are unopposed in Nov. 4 elections.

Another Assembly sponsor of that bill, Rep. Steve Nass of La Grange, is running for a Senate seat Republicans have controlled for decades.

Three of the five Republican senators who co-sponsored SB 619 aren’t up for election this year; a fourth Senate sponsor, Sen. Leah Vukmir, faces a Libertarian Party challenger.

Two Republican senators who kept SB 619 from being debated—Senate President Mike Ellis and Dale Schultz—have retired.

WisconsinEye interviews with more than 70 candidates in Aug. 12 primary elections show that scrapping Common Core standards, or reasserting the authority of local school boards to set their own academic goals, is a top priority of Assembly Republicans. Most Democratic candidates defend Common Core.

“I’m against Common Core,” said Paul Feit of Brussels. He’s a dentist and one of four Republicans in the Aug. 12 primary in the 1st Assembly District. The incumbent, Republican Rep. Garey Bies, is running for secretary of state.

“I do not agree with the way (Common Core) was implemented,” Feit added. “It was just more big government pushed on the states. … We’re going to set ourselves up for a disaster.”

John Lehman, a 16-year member of the Neenah School Board and one of five Republican candidates in the 55th Assembly District, proudly said his district’s standards are “already higher” than Common Core’s. Lehman wants to replace Neenah Mayor Dean Kaufert, who retired from the Assembly.

Lehman asked: Why risk lowering Neenah’s high academic goals by adopting Common Core standards?

Another Republican Assembly candidate, Tiffany Koehler of Slinger, one of three Republicans in the 58th Assembly District, said killing Common Core standards is one reason why she ran for the Legislature.

“Common Core has no place in Wisconsin’s public education system,” Koehler says on her campaign website.

One of Koehler’s GOP opponents, Sandy Voss, was only slightly less critical of those national standards.

“I don’t think the federal government should be mandating what we should be teaching in Wisconsin schools,” Voss said. “I think states should have more control. … I don’t know if (Common Core) is the answer.”

It’s clear that Assembly Republicans won’t have to decide whether to attack Common Core standards when they debate the 2015-17 state budget. But they will have to agree on how far to push the issue.

Tony Evers, state superintendent of public instruction and Common Core’s chief advocate, brought dozens of school superintendents to the Capitol to support those standards and kill SB 619.

Then, DPI Deputy Secretary Mike Thompson told legislators SB 619 had four major problems:

-- It is “bad for kids.”

-- It “pulls the rug out from under students, schools and communities.”

-- Wisconsin educators “overwhelmingly support the Common Core.”

-- And it “politicizes something that should be apolitical—what all kids in our state should know and be able to do when they graduate from high school.”

Evers will face a much bigger Common Core fight next year.

Rep. Janet Bewley of Ashland, one of three Democrats running in the 25th Senate District, is typical of Democratic candidates who defend Common Core.

“Common Core is perfectly fine,” Bewley said in a WisconsinEye interview. “It’s not the horrible thing that is being promoted as some death sentence for education.”

“When someone is opposed to education, they try to pull it apart and demonize some components of it,” Bewley added. “It does not have any horrible mandates. It’s reasonable.”

Steven Walters is a senior producer for the nonprofit public affairs channel WisconsinEye. Email stevenscwalters@gmail.com.

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