DES MOINES — Conservative suspicion over the national standards known as the Common Core threaten to derail key parts of Gov. Terry Branstad’s education reform plans.

Republican lawmakers in the House circulated a “dear colleague” letter last month promoting legislation in the upcoming session to eliminate the requirement that school districts adopt statewide standards.

A copy of the letter signed by first-term Republican state Rep. Sandy Salmon of Janesville and obtained by the Quad-City Times Des Moines Bureau also advocates pulling Iowa out of a testing consortium it joined two years ago and adding new laws explicitly forbidding the collection of certain types of student data.

“This is not a matter of nailing down which standards we don’t like and addressing each one of those,” wrote Salmon, a member of the House education committee and an outspoken advocate of home-school rights. “This is a matter of a whole system of control that destroys local control of education.”

The Common Core

Branstad has walked a tightrope on the school standards issue. His education reform package called for more assessments for students, and he pushed hard to get those assessments to be part of teacher evaluations.

Two years ago, he signed off on an initiative to make Iowa one of the now-22 governing states in the Smarter Balanced Assessment Consortium. It’s one of two testing consortiums being developed with Common Core alignment. The other, called Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers, now has 19 member states.

As a governing state, Iowa would have a greater say over the development of a national test that, by its mission, has to be aligned to the national Common Core standards.

Meeting with the Iowa State Board of Education late last year, Branstad said resistance to adopt statewide standards for education was one of the reasons Iowa slipped in national rankings.

“Smarter Balanced is the direction we’re looking at going,” he told the board.

But the governor also has been wary of pushing too far toward the idea of national tests. Indeed, shortly after telling the state board he thought Iowa fell behind because it was slow to adopt state standards, Branstad released Executive Order 83, which clarified his support for local control.

“The State of Iowa, not the federal government or any other organization, shall determine the content of Iowa’s state academic standards, which are known as the Iowa core,” the order read in part. “The State of Iowa, not the federal government or any other organization, shall choose the statewide assessments that will measure how well students have mastered the Iowa Core.”

The Common Core is an initiative by the National Governor’s Association to create a set of standards that every K-12 student should know in English and math by the end of each grade. Iowa adopted the Common Core standards into the state-developed Iowa Core in 2010. In addition to math and English, it includes science, social studies, and 21st-century learning — civic literacy, financial literacy, technology literacy, health literacy and employability skills — standards. All Iowa school districts are required to implement the Iowa Core by the end of the 2014-15 school year.

Pulling out

Emily Workman, a policy analyst with the Education Commission of the States, said the arguments being raised in Iowa sound familiar.

“There have been a handful of states in recent months that have pulled out of the PARCC or SBAC assessment consortia fully and/or delayed consequences of test outcomes for a period of time,” Workman wrote in an e-mail. “There are actually far more states that have pulled out of PARCC than SBAC, but the reasons cited are all very similar.”

For instance, Oklahoma pulled out of the Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers and Kansas pulled out of Smarter Balanced Assessment Consortium citing concerns over potential cost. Lawmakers in Indiana pulled out of Smarter Balanced because they worried about a loss of local control, and Utah pulled out of Smarter Balanced, Workman said, because of “an impression that because the consortia are federally funded that they will permit a new level of federal intrusion into states.”

Each of those reasons also was cited in Salmon’s “dear colleagues” letter.

“Standards and curriculum should be primarily decided by the local school — its parents, teachers and administrators. When Iowa was considered #1 in the nation in education that’s what we did,” Salmon wrote. “Our concern is that Iowa has dropped from being #1 in education among the states to the middle of the pack. However the Common Core system of control will not get us back to the top. We are barking up the wrong tree.”

Meanwhile, the Iowa Department of Education has a committee meeting on what statewide assessments the state should adopt as part of the education reform legislation.

Tammy Wawro, president of the Iowa State Education Association, is a member of the committee. She said she’s not sold on Smarter Balanced, but “any knee-jerk move is a bad move, and (Salmon’s proposal) seems like a knee-jerk move.”

Staci Hupp, communications director for the Iowa Department of Education, indicated the department is going on with its work.

“We believe the Legislature supports a state assessment that is aligned to the Iowa Core (which includes the Common Core). We believe this is why legislators required that any future assessment be aligned with the Iowa Core,” she wrote in an e-mail. “We believe the Legislature supports having statewide standards for what students should know and be able to do. We believe this is why the Legislature adopted the Iowa Core in 2008 to replace locally determined standards.”

Branstad spokesman Jimmy Centers didn’t directly answer when asked if Branstad agreed with the sentiments of Salmons’ letter.

“Though Iowa is a member of SBAC, we are not obligated to adopt their assessment, and Iowa law would need to be changed to do so. This means legislators would have the opportunity to weigh in on this important topic,” Centers wrote in an email. “Any assessment would have to adhere to these standards so we can accurately measure student achievement. Ultimately, Gov. Branstad wants to make sure students have a strong assessment to match our high academic standards.”