NASHVILLE — Senate Speaker Ron Ramsey says efforts by fellow Republicans to put off Tennessee's Common Core standards face problems because of money: a two-year delay is estimated to cost $10 million, atop a looming budget shortfall that could hit $275 million.
Still, the powerful speaker said that doesn't mean he isn't interested in finding some remedy to address concerns raised by Common Core critics.
"I think we can reach a compromise on this somewhere," Ramsey said.
Earlier this month, House critics commandeered a Senate bill on the chamber floor and inserted a two-year delay in the Common Core math and English standards as well as the accompanying student assessments.
"I want to reach a solution," Ramsey said. "That's the biggest problem that I have with what the House did. And what's their solution? Punt for two years. You don't do that."
Ramsey's comments would appear to be a blow to Republican Gov. Bill Haslam's efforts to keep Common Core pretty much as is. The Senate bill passed last week was seen by some as a bulwark against major changes.
The bill seeks to address two major concerns by restricting sharing of students' personal information with the federal government and requiring legislative approval before Common Core standards could be extended to areas like social sciences and science.
After watching the House OK the two-year delay March 13, Haslam last week visited schools in all three of Tennessee's grand divisions, holding public meetings with teachers in an effort to highlight and defend Common Core.
Asked about Ramsey's comments, Haslam spokesman David Smith on Friday referred a reporter to Haslam's remarks a day earlier.
"The reality is there's so much misconception about Common Core and what it is," Haslam said. "And when you talk to people about what are your actual issues with Common Core, I think a lot of those questions get answered and are solved."
He said educators are in the third year of implementing Common Core changes, which are designed to sharpen students' thinking and engagement.
"I came away from the time I spent this week [talking to teachers] more convinced than ever that backing up would be, I'm not exaggerating, a tragic mistake for our state," the governor said.
Common Core standards, adopted by Tennessee and 44 other states, were developed by the National Governors Association and the Council of State School Officers.
They are intended as a new baseline for K-12 math and English to prepare students for college and the workforce.
Tennessee also is participating in new student testing prepared by the 17-state Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers.
But pushback from social conservatives and others in a number of states has been fierce. Opponents fear nationalization of education and peddling of liberal social ideas to children.
That has some Republicans fleeing for cover in GOP-run states and putting leaders such as Haslam on the defensive.
The House opposition was an unlikely coalition between tea partiers, conservatives and Democrats, who heard concerns from teachers about using the new tests in performance evaluations.
The House-passed changes are coming back to the Senate. The bill's sponsor, Sen. Frank Niceley, R-Strawberry Plains, hopes his colleagues will agree with them and send the bill to the governor.
The hurdle is a legislative fiscal analysis estimating the delay would cost the state $10 million. Niceley has questioned whether "shenanigans" were involved in arriving at the figure.
The $10 million fiscal note means the bill will go to the Senate Finance Committee before it can be heard on the floor. And since the money is not in Haslam's proposed budget, the bill will go "behind the budget," Ramsey said.
"In order for that bill to be effective, you have to find the money to pay for it."
He said an existing budget shortfall is growing because business taxes are lagging behind estimates.
Ramsey said an anticipated $125 million shortfall is at least twice what was estimated. Haslam may have to cut $275 million or slash some of his recommended improvements for the 2014-15 budget year.
Asked if that means Niceley's bill is dead, Ramsey said if the governor has to cut another $125 million or $150 million "and they try to find another $10 million for this, then yes."
"But that's not based on philosophy, that's based on being prudent," he said.
Last week, former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush, a Common Core proponent and possible 2016 GOP presidential hopeful, appeared with Haslam in Nashville and said he was concerned about widespread attacks on the standards.
Bush said Common Core represents a "real-world, grown-up approach to a real crisis that we have. And it's been mired in politics."
But, he acknowledged, there aren't a "whole lot of people who are standing up to this avalanche."
Ramsey later said Bush met with him and several Senate Republicans and shared "some interesting ideas that I think we need to consider."
He said Florida, rather than adopt Common Core, "came up with their own standards that actually were stiffer in some cases."
"I'm all for that. I'm all for the high standards. Call it whatever you want to, I want the high standards," he said.
But according to the Tampa Bay Times, Florida's changes have done little to mollify critics.
The newspaper's education blog reported last week the Florida Stop Common Core Coalition is blasting the shift to the American Institutes for Research for devising the tests, calling it an "appallingly bad choice."
Not only does AIR "do major behavioral/mental health testing and research and is developing the test for the Smarter Balanced Assessment Consortium, but they are very involved in developing briefs and other information promoting acceptance of the LGBT lifestyle for elementary age school children," the blog quoted the coalition as saying.
LGBT is the abbreviation for the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender community. Similar concerns were raised in Utah. The Florida anti-Common Core group urged critics to pressure Republican Gov. Rick Scott about that.
AIR does work on LGBT issues, the Tampa Bay Times reported. But the newspaper quoted a company spokesman saying it does not promote lifestyle choices, and "we actually don't advocate for anything."
Contact staff writer Andy Sher at asher@timesfree press.com or 615-255-0550.
Andy Sher is a Nashville-based staff writer covering Tennessee state government and politics for the Times Free Press. A Washington correspondent from 1999-2005 for the Times Free Press, Andy previously headed up state Capitol coverage for The Chattanooga Times, worked as a state Capitol reporter for The Nashville Banner and was a contributor to The Tennessee Journal, among other publications. Andy worked for 17 years at The Chattanooga Times covering police, health care, county government, ...