BOISE — The first of an expected three days of legislative hearings on Idaho's education standards kicked off Wednesday.
The House Education Committee heard three hours of testimony on the English Language Arts section of the Idaho Content Standards, Idaho's version of Common Core. A majority of people who testified favored keeping the standards, including numerous educators, Superintendent of Public Instruction Sherri Ybarra and Tom Luna, who was state superintendent when the state adopted the standards in 2011. Several supporters said they are better than the previous standards, encourage critical thinking and ensure that students statewide are being taught the same skills.
“For me, it’s the level of rigor that has been embraced," said Julia Withers, a seventh-grade English teacher from Caldwell. "That students are capable of increased rigor and they're capable of these standards."
Several people urged the committee to scrap the standards, including a couple of school trustees from eastern Idaho. Rep. Dorothy Moon, R-Stanley, a former teacher and committee member, read from a letter from Madison School District 321 Superintendent Geoffrey Thomas, who is against the standards.
“Sadly after years of implementation there is no evidence anywhere to suggest Common Core has been academically beneficial … to our students," Thomas wrote.
Idaho's educational standards were enacted by administrative rule, and all of the state's rules are up for review this year since the Legislature didn't renew them at the end of the 2019 session and now needs to decide which to reapprove. In response to a petition organized by the Idaho Freedom Foundation, which opposes the standards, the state Board of Education held a series of hearings throughout the state on the standards last year and then voted to recommend keeping them.
“We voted unanimously to support the standards as they are, feeling it would not be responsible to reject them without anything to replace them with," said board President Debbie Critchfield.
Freedom Foundation Vice President Fred Birnbaum said the standards were sold originally as something that would increase student performance but haven't led to much improvement.
"What Idaho should do is craft better standards that serve our students and drive better outcomes," he said.
Supporters of the standards said they set expectations for students but local districts are free to choose the books, classroom materials and lesson plans they want.
"The Idaho Content Standards are not curriculum," Ybarra said. "They are simply a set of expectations for students."
However, a couple of opponents said some books recommended by companies that provide Common Core-aligned curricula contain inappropriate materials. Sonya Harris, a Blackfoot school trustee, read the committee a sex scene from the book "Dreaming in Cuban." Similar complaints led a high school in Arizona to ban the book in 2013, the Associated Press reported at the time.
"We feel pressured to choose curriculum companies that are closely aligned to the Common Core and promise our district will be more successful at the (statewide English test)," Harris said.
The committee is scheduled to take testimony on the math standards Thursday and science standards Monday and doesn't plan to vote on them until next week. Under the Legislature's rules review process, only one chamber of the Legislature needs to approve a rule, so even if the House committee ultimately rejects the standards they could still be reauthorized if the Senate Education Committee were to approve them later this session. Although whether that process will remain the same is up in the air too, as House and Senate leadership have been discussing changes to it.