Topeka The Common Core educational standards for reading and math, long a source of intense political controversy, will soon go by the wayside in Kansas.
But they aren't going away because of political opposition or the continuous demands from conservatives to have them repealed. Instead, they are being updated and replaced on the regular seven-year cycle that applies to all educational standards in the state.
"I think it was mostly widely spread misunderstandings of what it was all about," Kansas State Board of Education member Ken Willard, a Hutchinson Republican, said about the controversy. "Because if you listened to the criticisms, it was criticizing the sex education standards, things that the Common Core standards required a bunch of controversial readings and all that sort of thing. There really wasn’t anything to that, that I could find."
Willard is one of only four people on the state board who was serving in 2010 when the Common Core standards — officially known here as the Kansas College and Career Ready Standards — were adopted.
In August, the board officially approved new, updated standards in math. And on Tuesday, it will receive the final draft of new English language arts standards, with final approval slated for November.
Once that happens, the Common Core standards will become a thing of the past in Kansas.
For most of the past seven years, Common Core was erroneously cast as a federal mandate from the Obama administration, and an unprecedented intrusion by the federal government into a policy area traditionally reserved for state and local governments.
In fact, though, the effort to develop a set of uniform, national standards began around 2008 as a state-led effort, driven by the National Governors Association and the Council of Chief State School Officers. The Kansas State Department of Education was an active participant in the writing process.
But they became linked to the Obama administration starting in 2009 with the adoption of the Race to the Top grant program, a $4.35 billion competitive grant that was intended to spur innovation and reforms in public schools. That program was part of the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act, also known as the Recovery Act, that was passed in the immediate aftermath of the financial collapse that led to the Great Recession.
To be eligible for those grants, states were required to adopt rigorous academic standards in reading and math, which could mean the Common Core standards or something similar to them.
Kansas adopted the standards in 2010, but the state board specifically chose not to apply for a Race to the Top grant, with members saying at the time that they thought there were too many other federal strings attached to the money.
Despite that, there were numerous attempts in the Kansas Legislature to force a repeal of the standards, the most recent one being in 2016.
Critics in Kansas often could not point to anything specific in the standards that they objected to. They did, however, object to the Obama administration's role in coaxing states to adopt them, and to the fact that they were written largely by out-of-state officials and were not drafted specifically with Kansas schools in mind.
Willard, a conservative Republican himself, successfully pushed back against those efforts as one of the board's liaisons with the Legislature. He now says that he hopes the new standards will tamp down the criticism.
"I think over time they will," he said. "Critics are going to have to be specific about what they don’t like rather than just lumping every criticism into the Common Core bucket. I have not heard from anyone with criticisms of them at this point. But you know, it’s not the political season. It’ll be revived when the Legislature goes back into session."
Jim McNiece, a Wichita Republican who has been on the board since 2013, said he thought the criticism of Common Core was overblown.
"How many different ways can you say you’re going to have to know how to use a comma?" he asked rhetorically during a phone interview Monday. "But, as you well know, there was an attitude or belief that the federal government was telling us these are the standards we had to have."
McNiece said he noticed much of the anti-Common Core fervor in Kansas began to fade last year after the state board came out with its new "Kansans Can" vision for public schools, which calls for top-to-bottom overhauls in the way public schools address the individual needs of students so they are ready for college or a career by the time they graduate high school.
"We gave people a sense of direction and purpose," McNiece said.
Brent Wolf, a middle school English teacher in Derby who chaired the review committee that oversaw the new English language arts standards, said they are written to be more easily understood by the general public and to align directly with the state board's Kansans Can vision.
"So if a third-grade teacher is teaching fact and opinion, (he or she) is going to know why that is important as a Kansas high school graduate," Wolf said.