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July 30, 2014

Rift widening between Zais, state education boards

A rewrite of S.C. English and math education standards should begin with Common Core, according to a state Senate attorney’s interpretation of a new law ordering a rewrite of the state’s education standards.

A rewrite of South Carolina English and math education standards should begin with Common Core, according to an interpretation of a new South Carolina law by a state Senate attorney.

But state education Superintendent Mick Zais and his attorney disagree, leading the Republican to instruct educators who are rewriting those standards to ignore Common Core and start their review with older standards.

Disagreement over whether the new law allows Zais to throw out Common Core will be the focus of a meeting Thursday of lawmakers, state Education Department representatives and the leaders of two state education boards. Those boards must OK any changes to the state’s education standards, which outline what students should know at each grade level, and their leaders say the rewrite must start with Common Core.

The dispute underscores ongoing tensions – and a widening rift – between the two education boards and Zais, who has made ridding the state of Common Core a priority before he leaves office in January.

Zais was unavailable for comment Wednesday, and the Richland Republican, who is not seeking re-election, will not attend Thursday’s meeting, said spokesman Dino Teppara.

State Board of Education chairman Barry Bolen, who plans to attend, said he will not support any new standards that do not start with a review of Common Core or take into account input from his board and the Education Oversight Committee, which also approves standards.

Melanie Barton, executive director of the Oversight Committee, agrees Common Core should be the starting point for the standards rewrite.

Lawmakers say they are willing to listen to Education Department officials.

But Senate Education Committee chairman John Courson, R-Richland, said the new law is clear the revision should start with Common Core. “There isn’t any way to interpret (the law) in any other light.”

“Everything should be on the table for the standard writers,” said state Sen. Wes Hayes, R-Rock Hill. “(T)hey need to find the best standards that they can learn from other states ... from Common Core .... and from previous standards that they’ve had in the past.”

Added Hayes, “Everybody may have to give a little and see if we can find some consensus.”

Common Core was developed by a coalition of state schools chiefs and governors hoping to create national benchmarks to prepare students for college or careers in a globally competitive market.

Opponents have criticized the standards for not being written in South Carolina. However, legislative efforts to repeal Common Core failed this year.

Still, lawmakers did agree to speed up the process for reviewing and revising the state’s education standards. That review must start by Jan. 1, and new standards must be in place for the 2015-16 school year.

Zais, who is fast-tracking the revision in hopes of having a draft complete for approval by January, and other education leaders have interpreted the call for new standards differently.

In a July 18 memo, Shelly Kelly, the Education Department’s general counsel, wrote the law calls for “new” standards, not a “revision” of Common Core.

In response, a state Senate attorney wrote Kelly erred by taking parts of the law “out of context” to argue the General Assembly meant to exclude Common Core from the review process.

“(I)f the entire statute is construed together, it is clear that the General Assembly intended new standards to be developed, but that the existing Common Core standards would be the starting point or baseline for the development of the new college readiness standards,” attorney Michael Hitchcock wrote Wednesday in response to Courson and Hayes’ request for a legal interpretation of the new law.

In his memo, Hitchcock points to a part of the new law that says a “review” must be performed of English and math standards “not developed by the South Carolina Department of Education.”

Hitchcock said the word “review” in the law “clearly expresses an intent that the development of the new standards will begin with something that exists, not with something completely new.”

How different the new standards are from the Common Core depends on the educators tasked with rewriting the standards, and the Education Board and the Oversight Committee, which must approve the standards.

Getting those boards more involved in revising the standards will be another topic of Thursday’s meeting, lawmakers said.

Education Board chairman Bolen said Wednesday his reading of the new law requires his board’s input in the new standards. But, he added, he is frustrated by his board’s lack of input.

“The State Department of Education continues to act without involving the (Education Board), and that results in a lot of wasted time,” he added. “There’s no trust there, there’s no support, and they (Zais’ administration) have created that atmosphere.”

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