ATLANTA - Republican lawmakers indulged their conservative wing Tuesday by opposing national education standards, though the watered-down legislation does nothing to change the standards at the heart of the controversy.
State Sen. William Ligon Jr., R-Brunswick, initially proposed harsher legislation that mandated Georgia abandon a national plank of educational standards in math and English instruction. Those standards, called the Common Core, have been adopted by most states and set benchmarks for what students should learn. The state Senate voted 34-16 to adopt a scaled-back version of the law.
"It is important that we recognize Georgia's constitutional right to determine what will be taught in our classrooms," Ligon said.
The debate over Common Core has caused an election-year rift between traditional Republican constituencies. Former Gov. Sonny Perdue, a Republican, was co-chair of the group that originally produced the standards, and they have been supported by Georgia's Chamber of Commerce, a business lobbying group. However, tea party and other conservative activists denounce the standards as a federal intrusion into local education policy.
In a political compromise, critics of the Common Core standards got legislation that takes a symbolic swipe at the system without fundamentally changing state policy. As a practical matter, Georgia adopted the standards in 2010 and local educators have spent time and money building new curriculums around them. State lawmakers heard as much when they spoke with teacher before the start of the legislative session.
"They got an earful from a lot of educators saying, 'Listen, don't yank the rug out from under us because there's a political tussle going on,'" said Tim Callahan, a spokesman for the Professional Association of Georgia Educators, a teachers' lobbying group.
The legislation technically bans state officials from adopting standards prescribed by the federal government or other organizations going forward. It will have no effect on the 2010 decision by Georgia's Board of Education to make the Common Core standards as the state's own. And the U.S. government never required that states use the standards, though it did encourage their development and adoption.
The bill would create a council to advise education officials on changes to the educational standards in the future.
Other provisions of the bill were designed to appeal to GOP constituents deeply afraid of government information gathering, whether real or perceived. For example, the plan would generally ban state agencies from collecting biometric data on students, asking them about their family's beliefs on politics, sexuality or whether they own a gun.
Senior Republicans find themselves in a bind over the issue.
"While this bill gets into the standards business, which I don't think should be legislated, it is a bill that still allows the State Board of Education the ultimate control over standards taught in the classroom, so I can live with it," Georgia Schools Superintendent John Barge said in a statement. Barge, a Republican, is running against Gov. Nathan Deal in this year's GOP primary.
Deal had touted Georgia's implementation of the standards, but his tone changed as a backlash built. He later signed an executive order banning the state from collecting information from students and families, including religious and political affiliation and voting history. However, Deal said Georgia's state government was not collecting that information. He later called for the state Board of Education to review the standards and determine whether changes should be made.