AUGUSTA, Maine — The Maine Equal Rights Center announced Wednesday that it will launch a citizens’ petition campaign to repeal Maine’s reliance on a set of education standards used in 45 states.
The ballot question, which would go to a November 2014 referendum if petitioners gather enough valid signatures, is the first of its kind in the country. Heidi Sampson, a member of the state Board of Education and the Maine Charter School Commission, co-founded a group called No Common Core Maine, which is partnering with the Maine Equal Rights Center on the initiative.
Opponents of Common Core characterize it as part of an attempt to nationalize public education and an erosion of local control. Proponents say it allows state education officials to ensure consistency, which leads to better overall educational performance.
“On a daily basis, people are realizing for the first time the significant impact of Common Core and are becoming increasingly concerned,” said Sampson during a news conference Wednesday at the State House. “This is not another educational fad that will pass away. The people of Maine must become informed and let their voices be heard.”
The Common Core State Standards were implemented in 2010 in response to increased calls for proficiency-based education, which means students leave their public school with certain knowledge and skills in common with all other students. The intent was to ensure that all schools follow the same guidelines in teaching their students. Maine, which adopted the standards in 2010 under Gov. John Baldacci, is on track to adopt a new student testing system called Smarter Balance, which is based on the Common Core standards.
But Sampson and others argue that Common Core standards are actually less stringent than what many states would otherwise use, that the set of standards was implemented too quickly and that it strips control away from families and local school boards over what is taught in schools.
Erick Bennett, director of the Maine Equal Rights Center, said the local control issue was paramount for his organization.
“We’re going to let the people in our state and their respective communities decide if they want to have control of what their children learn and how their money is spent or if they’re going to leave that to a government that has a 33-percent approval rating,” said Bennett. “The overall, overarching issue here is people losing control within their respective communities about what is best for their students. That is unacceptable.”
Jamie Gass, director of the Center for School Reform at the Pioneer Institute in Boston, said his organization’s research has shown that Common Core is a weaker standard than measures used in some of what he called “high-standards states” as well as some Asian countries that are known for the quality of their education systems.
But Rachelle Tome, chief academic officer for the Maine Department of Education, said she disagrees.
“I would ask them to check with a few of our teachers,” said Tome. “If there’s anything I have heard consistently it’s from teachers about how they are going to adjust to even more rigorous standards.”
Tome said another attribute of Common Core can be seen at the practical and financial levels.
“There’s an economy of scale when you do these things with other states,” she said, adding that having universal standards also makes life easier for students or teachers who switch schools.
Bennett said the intent of the referendum was to abolish both Common Core and Maine’s Learning Results — which are another layer of education standards — leaving education decisions to be made exclusively at the local level.
“How would you know where you have the same set of expectations in your district as someone else nearby or somewhere else in the state?,” said Tome. “What would that mean for a student who starts education in one place and moves to another? When you’re leaving college as a teacher, how do you know what your expectations are going to be when you go out for a job?”
But that doesn’t convince some, including Rep. Eleanor Espling, R-New Gloucester, one of the speakers at Wednesday’s press conference.
“Just like the Affordable Care Act, I cannot and will not support this nationalization of our education system,” she said.
A citizen initiative in Maine requires certified and valid signatures from 58,000 people.