In defiance of the governor, the state House voted overwhelmingly Thursday to delay furthering the Common Core educational standards. The surprise move would not change benchmarks already in place in math and language-arts, but it would set back a new standardized test currently set to start next year.
Lawmakers have voiced skepticism of Common Core and the corresponding test, known as PARCC, arguing it’s not the state’s own. There were fears of Big Brother and a federal takeover—or at least data-mining. But bills targeting Common Core have struggled to advance in committee.
That prompted an end-run on the House floor. Democratic Leader Craigh Fitzhugh brought an amendment, as he explained it, to “simply postpone the implementation of the Common Core standards for two years.” Fitzhugh’s move came as a surprise, hijacking an unrelated bill with a big 80 votes in the mostly Republican chamber.
The maneuver led to a lot of procedural confusion. For one thing, the amendment wasn’t what the bill’s main backer intended, and it wasn’t what the House Education Subcommittee had agreed to previously. That prompted its chairman, Mark White, to ask freshman Timothy Hill to just take his bill and go home.
WHITE: “At that time we asked you, if it was amended in any way, that you would bring it back to our committee, and you said yes. I would like to ask you now, at this time, to put an end to this shenanigan going on in this room, and move it back to (the Education committee) now. Will you honor your word?”
HILL: “Well, Chairman White, I certainly appreci—“
WHITE: “Yes or no.”
Hill relented, but in all the commotion, the amended bill wound up passing anyway, backed by droves of rank-and-file Republicans along with a lot of Democrats. The turn of events even seemed to fluster House Speaker Beth Harwell, who supports Common Core but skipped several chances to vote.
“I simply don’t feel comfortable taking a stand until I know clearly what the amendments are doing, and the impact to our programs, and the fiscal impact on the state,” Harwell told reporters.
That last part—the fiscal impact, as Harwell put it—could be a big deal. A crucial change the House made would delay the PARCC test, set to go into effect next school year. Such a move has been estimated to cost the state millions of dollars. WPLN put the question to Fitzhugh afterward:
WPLN: “And the argument is that would cost the state a bunch of money, right?”
FITZHUGH: “Well, if we go to something that doesn’t work, it’s going to cost the state a lot more than money. Let’s get it right—in the long run, let’s make sure we do it right.”
The amended bill now heads to the Senate, and could wind up on the desk of Governor Bill Haslam. Unlike some other Republican governors, he’s refused to negotiate any move to undo Common Core, and could face an awkward dilemma: the House had more than enough votes to override any veto—facing Haslam with the prospect of being overrun on a key issue, largely by his own party.
Caught briefly walking across the plaza outside afterward, Gov. Bill Haslam was reluctant to comment to WPLN on legislation he hadn’t seen, but said this:
“First of all, we’re in the third year of (Common Core) implementation. So it’s not something you can back away from. We’re already in the middle of the program. With PARCC, you have to have assessments of some type, and so the question would be, what else would you use, and what would it cost? Thanks.”
Haslam spokesman Dave Smith later offered this statement:
“Today’s votes are one step in the legislative process, and we will review the amendments to assess their impact. Tennessee has come too far to go backward. The governor will continue to stand up for higher standards and relevant testing of those standards.”