By opting out of Common Core, South Carolina has politicized education rather than trying to raise the bar for students already struggling in low-performing schools, the nation's top education official told a group of local educators Thursday.
"When we dumb down standards ... it's terrible for students," U.S. Education Secretary Arne Duncan said. "Historically South Carolina has set a low bar. That's not something anyone should be proud of."
Duncan spoke to several hundred teachers, principals and school administrators through a live Internet chat as part of the Charleston County School District's Charleston Educator Symposium at the School of the Arts in North Charleston. Duncan fielded questions on a variety of topics including questions about the increasingly political climate surrounding educational policy.
Katherine Anderson, assistant principal at Drayton Hall Elementary, asked Duncan about the role politics has played in the roll out of the Common Core State Standards, noting that South Carolina is now "stepping away" from Common Core.
The Common Core standards have come under fire in a number of states, including South Carolina, as a way to nationalize eduction. Common Core standards define what students in all grades must learn in reading and math.
Gov. Nikki Haley signed a bill on May 30 that will replace Common Core curriculum for the 2015-2016 school year with new standards developed by the S.C. Department of Education.
Haley, at a news conference Thursday, celebrated the Legislature's achievements this year in education, including "pulling back" Common Core.
"It's time to make it the year of the child and go forward with education," she said.
Sen. Larry Grooms, R-Charleston, an outspoken critic of Common Core who supported its repeal, disagreed that South Carolina has set low standards.
"I believe you should have high standards and you should have high expectations, but what the federal secretary fails to realize is that education is a state responsibility not a federal responsibility," Grooms said Thursday. "A one-size-fits-all policy will bring ruin to this country.
"The bill that was signed by the governor put South Carolina education standards back where they belong - in South Carolina."
Duncan told the teachers there are legitimate questions about the Common Core standards, but that's not the majority of what's being discussed.
"So much of this is about politics, not about helping students," he said.
In a state like South Carolina, where there has been a history of low-performing schools, Duncan said setting high standards is essential to improving education for students. South Carolina is ranked 41 out of 50 states and the District of Columbia in Education Week's 2014 Quality Counts report. The rankings are based on a variety of categories. South Carolina scored an A in standards, assessments and accountability but received a grade of D in school finance and a D in K-12 achievement.
In response to a separate question about how to take politics out of education, Duncan said educators and lawmakers have to find a way to work together.
"We try everything we can to work in a bipartisan manner," he said of his department.
Charleston schools Superintendent Nancy McGinley, in an interview after the session with Duncan, agreed that politics shouldn't have played a role in conversations about Common Core.
McGinley said that based on feedback from the state's Education Oversight Committee the state's new curriculum could parallel the types of standards in Common Core. That means the training local teachers did in preparation for the Common Core could still be "valuable," McGinley said.
"I feel it should have never gotten politicized in the first place," she said. "What is important is sending out high performing students to succeed in the work place."
A total of 1,100 educators attended the three-day symposium held at the School of the Arts and Academic Magnet High School campuses and at West Ashley High School. Teachers, principals and school administrators attended seminars from state and national education experts on topics such as instructional leadership, personalized learning and college and career readiness.
The purpose of the symposium, McGinley said, is to expose local educators to the national conversation about issues and best practices in education.
Reach Amanda Kerr at 937-5546 or at Twitter.com/PCAmandaKerr