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Public debates Common Core standards; both sides remain entrenched

SALT LAKE CITY — After two hours of trading criticism and praise of the Common Core standards Thursday night, common ground appeared to be a distant goal and both sides came away further entrenched in their views.

The State Office of Education hosted the public forum at the Granite School District offices. Education officials were on hand in a passive capacity, listening to the public comment but not responding to questions or concerns in an effort allow time for the greatest number of individuals to speak.

Opponents of the Common Core expressed their fears of federal control — through funding or influence — and a perceived violation of state sovereignty. An equal number of supporters applauded the standards' rigorous academic benchmarks and the inter-state consistency that result from their adoption.

Utah adopted the Common Core State Standards in 2009 — an effort by multiple states to establish a set of educational benchmarks in language arts and math to ensure students are "career and college ready."

But heated opposition has gathered in recent months by Utahns who see the program as the latest example of overreaching federal control. Members of the State Office of Education have repeatedly stated that participation in the Common Core standards is completely voluntary — with no ties to federal funding — and State Board of Chairman Debra Roberts opened Thursday's meeting with a brief summary of the standards, attempting to dispel many of the rumors that have circulated among opponents.

"We decide the standards of our state," Roberts said. "We decide when they'll be changed. We'll decide when they need to be improved."

Still, many in attendance remained unconvinced, speaking out against the need for Utah to tie itself to a national standard and foreseeing an inevitable government takeover of public education. Despite requests from Roberts that the public refrain from applause, opponents like Oak Norton drew cheers from the crowd for blasting the Common Core.

"As soon as the federal government dangled this carrot out there, this golden carrot, everybody said 'let's jump on board before we even know what these standards are,'" Norton said. "It seems like it wasn't really about better standards, it was about getting federal money."

Gayle Ruzicka, president of the Utah Eagle Forum, also commented on the role of the federal government in Common Core, speculating that Utah's dependence on federal funding would eventually tether the state to the standards.

"If we were willing to give up our federal funds we'd be out of No Child Left Behind," Ruzicka said. "Once we get federal funds for Common Core it will be the same as No Child Left Behind."

In a few circumstances, supporters of Common Core also applauded or cheered after individual comments. One woman was jeered after suggesting that Common Core makes things easier for teachers without improving education for students.

The majority of the two-hour meeting, however, remained civil as the crowd of approximately 200 listened to both concerns and praise.

Marilyn Kofford spoke in favor of the consistency the standards would provide to students who move between states during their public education. She used the example of her own family, in which a number of her grandchildren have crossed state lines during the course of their education.

"We need a common thread across our states," she said. "You and I will always have grandchildren that will move here or there."

Kofford also downplayed criticism of federal funding, suggesting that government money is little more than a way of life and can be put to good use.

"I don't hear anybody griping about getting federal money for our roads," she said. "I think it's OK if Utah children get some of those federal dollars back to help them have a better education."

Many former and current educators spoke out in support of the Common Core, focusing on the educational benefit that the benchmarks create in the classroom. Bonnie Morgan said the standards were superior to anything she'd ever seen done in the state. Mary Lamb, a sixth-grade teacher in Granite School District, said that in 25 years of teaching she has been through many curriculum changes and has been "pleasantly surprised" by the concepts in Common Core.

"Our curriculum used to be a mile wide and one inch deep," she said. "It's much deeper now."

Still, the very nature of the standards, which were developed as a collaborative effort by a number of states, remained a sticking point for many at the meeting. Davis School District board member Peter Cannon said it was offensive to suggest that Utah is not capable of writing its own rigorous standards. Christel Swasey said the state loses nothing by abandoning the standards, but would preserve its sovereignty.

"We will be compelled to live by standards that we did not write," Swasey said. "Utah is not free under the Common Core initiative."