Gov. Bill Haslam and the Tennessee legislature are preparing for a fight over what the state's students should read and learn, with critics from across the political landscape teaming up to try to sink new standards they claim will weaken education.
An assortment of foes — from tea party activists to teacher advocates — are urging lawmakers to rethink the Common Core program, a set of benchmarks meant to raise education levels nationwide. Tennessee agreed to the standards three years ago, and Haslam wants to make them stick.
Opponents will take their first shots at the standards at a two-day hearing at the state Capitol that begins Thursday. But the battle could stretch well into next year's legislative session.
The dispute could serve as a major test of the education reforms begun by Gov. Phil Bredesen, a Democrat, and continued by Haslam, his Republican successor. It could also divert attention away from Haslam's own efforts to bolster education after high school.
"My initial challenge is not just helping my fellow governors (embrace Common Core); it's helping my fellow legislators," Haslam said Tuesday at a U.S. Chamber of Commerce conference in Washington on improving education standards.
"It will be a real battle. It's just one of these interesting political deals where you have people on the far right who have heard it's 'Obama-core' ... and then you have folks on the far left, who don't like the fact that teachers' evaluations are being tied to students' test scores."
The Common Core State Standards Initiative began in 2008 with a report by the National Governors Association which called for creating uniform requirements for students across the country, rather than relying on each state to develop their own education agendas independently.
Supporters argued that shared standards would ensure that more students graduate from high school ready to work or attend college. Common Core also keeps states from lowering their standards for political reasons, they said.
Bredesen and the Tennessee legislature pledged in 2010 to work Common Core standards into the state's curriculum as part of its successful Race to the Top application. The program drew little criticism then, tucked away as a side provision to more controversial changes such as tying teacher pay to student test scores.
But Common Core has come under fire since, particularly from conservatives. Some argue that the program steers teachers toward literature and textbooks with a liberal slant, while others say the program could hinder experimentation in education by tying states to a single national framework.
"If Tennessee wants to raise its standards, you can do that," said Jane Robbins, a senior fellow from the Washington, D.C-based American Principles Project who will testify at the hearing. "Once Common Core goes into effect, parents will have no more voice."
Supporters of Common Core are pushing back. Haslam said Wednesday that the effort will better prepare Tennessee students for work or college and give parents a more accurate assessment of how well their children are progressing.
"I think Common Core is about helping everybody understand, OK, here's what a fifth grader should know in math skills or here's what an eighth grader should know in reading comprehension," he said.
Supporters also plan a counteroffensive. A group called the Expect More, Achieve More Coalition plans to hold a press conference before the hearing in which Parent-Teacher Association leaders, math teachers and an administrator will state a case for Common Core. Meanwhile another organization, called Mission: Readiness, has sent the legislature a letter signed by seven generals and an admiral arguing on behalf of Common Core.
Haslam plans to follow this week's hearings with interest. He said he's prepared to deal with the debate on top of his own education agenda.
"I actually think the hearings (Thursday) and Friday will be a great way to get a lot of things on the table so people can understand what they are and what they're not," he said.