The new Common Core standards replace a hodgepodge of educational goals that had varied greatly from state to state. The federal government was not involved in the state-led effort to develop them but has encouraged the project.
While proponents say the new standards will better prepare students, critics worry they'll set a national curriculum for public schools rather than letting states decide what is best for their students.
There was little dissent when the standards were widely adopted in 2010, but that begun changing last year and debate picked up steam this year. The standards have divided Republicans, with former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush championing them and conservatives such as Sen. Chuck Grassley, R-Iowa, opposing them.
Lawmakers and governors are reviewing the standards in Kansas, Missouri, Michigan, Pennsylvania, Georgia, Indiana, Alabama, South Carolina and Utah. Grassley, meanwhile, persuaded eight other senators to sign onto a letter in April asking the Senate Appropriations Committee to stop the Education Department from linking adoption of the standards to eligibility for other federal dollars. That same month, the Republican National Committee passed a resolution calling the standards an "inappropriate overreach."
Kristy Campbell, a spokeswoman for the Bush-backed Foundation for Excellence in Education, said conservatives historically have supported higher standards and greater accountability.
"The fact that they are opposed to Common Core now is a little surprising and disappointing given the fact that states came together to solve a need," Campbell said, adding that the new standards will allow for state-by-state comparisons that haven't been possible before. "We are going to have more rigorous assessments that are going to test kids against those higher standards and hopefully achieve what we all want, which is a dramatically greater quality of education in America."
The American Legislative Exchange Council, a conservative, Washington-based think tank that espouses conservative policies in state legislatures, debated in November whether to oppose the Common Core standards. The group ultimately decided to remain neutral, but its discussion, along with concerns raised by conservative groups such as the Goldwater and Pioneer institutes, caught the attention of lawmakers.
States that adopt the standards are supposed to use them as a base on which to build their curricula and testing, but they can make their benchmarks tougher than Common Core. While the Thomas B. Fordham Institute, a Washington, D.C.-based think tank, found the new standards to be more rigorous than those that had been used by three-quarters of all states, critics question what will happen in states whose previous standards were tougher.
"So in that regard we really viewed Common Core as the race to the middle, not to the top," said Jamie Gass, director of the Center for School Reform at the Pioneer Institute.
Questions about testing also have arisen. In New York, among the first states to test students based on the standards, some students complained this spring that the Common Core-aligned English exams were too difficult to complete in the allotted time, and there were reports of students crying from stress.
Jonathan Butcher, education director for the Goldwater Institute, based in Phoenix, said opposition also is gaining traction because states and districts are at the point where money has to be appropriated to pay for the standards.
"As soon as states had to start spending money on the Common Core, as soon as it became a line item in the budget, people sit up and take notice," Butcher said. "And that wasn't going to happen until now, until states started to implement it. So it's unfortunate that there is so much attention to it so late in the game but that's kind of where we are. As soon as it starts to become a money issue people will pay attention."
Calculations on the cost of implementing the standards vary, with the Pioneer Institute and two other anti-Common Core conservative think tanks estimating it will cost $16 billion over seven years. Meanwhile, the Fordham Institute, which is pro-Common Core, said the cost over a one-to-three-year transition period could range from $8.3 billion to breaking even or even saving money, depending on things like whether the states purchase hard-copy textbooks or use open-source learning material written by experts, vetted by their peers and posted for free downloading.
One issue is that new tests tied to the standards will be computerized, requiring some states and districts to make technology upgrades. The Pioneer analysis included those technology costs; the Fordham one didn't.
In backing ultimately unsuccessful anti-Common Core legislation in Missouri, Rep. Kurt Bahr, a Republican from the St. Louis suburb of O'Fallon, said he was concerned that many communities lacked the bandwidth and hardware to administer the tests.
"We don't have that connectivity," Bahr said. "It's about to become a massive pocketbook issue."
The standards are the result of an initiative sponsored by the National Governors Association and the Council of Chief State School Officers. Carrie Heath Phillips, who oversees implementation of the standards for the council, played down the concerns about cost, noting that states periodically update their standards and that spending money to implement new ones is nothing new. She also acknowledged that technology upgrades can be a real issue for states that haven't invested in it, but asked, "If you're not moving into the 21st century now in 2013, when are you going to?"
The standards have a long list of supporters, including the National Parent Teacher Association, several education associations and businesses such as the Boeing Co. and Microsoft Corp.
Literacy teacher Jessica Cuthbertson said she attempted to fully implement the new standards in her sixth-grade Aurora, Colo., classroom for the first time this year and found her students' writing was "substantially better."
"I feel that often the debate isn't about the learning," said Cuthbertson, who also trains teachers to use the new standards as part of her job with a virtual teacher leadership initiative called the Center for Teaching Quality. "We're not talking about what the kids are producing and doing with these cool standards. We're talking about the big brother federal government controlling curriculum. I don't think it's really grounded in student learning, and yet in the hands of teachers focused on student learning, I just think there is nothing but hope."
While the federal government wasn't involved in developing the standards, it has provided $350 million to two consortiums developing Common Core tests. The federal Education Department also encouraged states to adopt the standards to compete for "Race to the Top" grants and seek waivers around some of the unpopular proficiency requirements of the No Child Left Behind federal education act.
"They have done some things that have kind of muddied the waters at the very least," said Butcher of the Goldwater Institute. "It's hard for me to say, 'Well, clearly the federal government has no interest in this.'"
But in Michigan, where the Republican-led Legislature is taking steps aimed at halting the standards, Republican Gov. Rick Snyder is defending them as a "really important opportunity" for the state.
"Unfortunately, it's been too much about politics," he said. "It's being viewed as the federal government putting another federal mandate on us. ... It was the governors of the states getting together ... to say we want a partner at the national level and all levels to say, 'Let's raise the bar.'"