Hate Common Core? It’ll cost Utah $100 million to replace, school board member warns

Education standards • Starting over on state’s own benchmarks too costly, board member says; Core opponent blasts program, ambiguous policies.

Scott Sommerdorf | The Salt Lake Tribune Lobbyist Spencer Stokes shows off some of the features in the lobbyist lounge. One of the three conference rooms can be seen to the right. The Salt Lake Tribune was given a tour of the new lobbyists lounge on the lower floor of the Utah Capitol building Monday, Jan. 25, 2010.

Utah opponents of the Common Core State Standards may need to foot a $100 million bill if they're committed to replacing the controversial education benchmarks, according to state school board member Spencer Stokes.

During a Thursday meeting of the school board's Standards and Assessment Committee, Stokes said it is simply too expensive for Utah to start from scratch on a new set of grade-level standards for mathematics and English education.

"There's no way on God's green Earth that the Legislature is going to give us the money needed to create a true Utah core," Stokes said. "In my mind, that chapter of this debate has closed because there's no funding for it."

Stokes' explanation met resistance from board colleague Lisa Cummins, a member of the advocacy group Utahns Against Common Core.

She said her constituents don't believe the debate is over and are not satisfied allowing a "socialist program" to be rendered impenetrable by financial constraints.

"Then they can pay for it," Stokes responded. "The point is, the Legislature won't give us the money."

Common Core was developed by a national consortium of state leaders and education experts. The standards outline the minimum math and English skills students should master each year as they advance toward graduation. They were adopted by Utah — and most states — in 2010.

Since then, the Utah Board of Education has made a number of revisions to school standards, but Common Core remains the backbone of the state's grade-level benchmarks.

A 2016 report found that comprehensive revision of the Utah's math and English standards, including the development of new tests and instructional materials and training for educators, could cost up to $38 million for the Utah Board of Education and another $87 million for local school districts.

Because statewide tests were rewritten to match Common Core, many critics falsely attribute federal testing requirements to the education benchmarks. Opponents also object to the standards' out-of-state origins and efforts by the Obama administration to incentivize their adoption by states.

The exchange between Stokes and Cummins came during a discussion of statewide testing. The Utah Board of Education is seeking a potential replacement for SAGE, the end-of-year exams taken by children in grades 3 through 11.

High school juniors now can take the ACT exam in lieu of SAGE. But plans to replace SAGE in grades 9 and 10 next spring with a suite of ACT preparation tests ran afoul of Utah law, according to Jo Ellen Shaeffer, the school board's assessment director.

"ACT does not align with Utah core standards," Shaefer said.

The Standards and Assessment Committee voted to continue using SAGE in grades 9 and 10 next year while a new assessment provider is sought for 2019 and beyond. The committee's recommendations require approval by the full Utah Board of Education.

Committee members also discussed the issue of parents opting their children out of SAGE testing, which has led to allegations of schools unlawfully rewarding students who participate in end-of-year exams.

Cummins said there is ambiguity in state law and school board policies that needs to be clarified to secure parental rights. She added that schools and teachers should face consequences for incentivizing students to complete SAGE.

"We need to be more prescriptive," she said. "Parents have the right to opt out. It needs to be crystal clear."

Shaeffer said some confusion stems from the requirement that students who opt out participate in a "meaningful educational opportunity" while their classmates complete SAGE. In many schools an alternative exam is offered, she said, which has led to complaints that children are punished for not taking end-of-year tests.

"I don't believe giving a test to a student is a punishment," Shaeffer said. "But other people may feel that way."

School board member and classroom teacher Jennifer Graviet said the laws and policies regarding SAGE are confusing for educators, who want to encourage students to take tests seriously.

"I want it clearly defined," Graviet said. "I want to know what I can do and what I can't do."

bwood@sltrib.com Twitter: @bjaminwood

Trent Nelson | The Salt Lake Tribune Cara Baldree, a teacher at Lincoln Elementary School in Salt Lake City, teaches science to fourth-graders, Friday August 28, 2015. The second year of SAGE scores for Utah schools will be released on Monday, August 31. Lincoln Elementary School saw the largest improvement on SAGE scores among the schools in Salt Lake City District.

Lisa D. Cummins, running for State School Board 11. Courtesy photo