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Analysis: Arkansas governor buys governor more time on debate about Common Core's future

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LITTLE ROCK, Arkansas — Gov. Asa Hutchinson said he wanted his Common Core task force to come up with an "Arkansas solution" as it waded into the debate over standards that have come under fire from many conservatives. Instead of solving a problem, the panel just bought him more time.

By recommending Arkansas stick with Common Core for the time being while it reviews ways to improve and possibly replace the standards to better fit the state, the panel avoided a clear-cut answer on an issue that's become a political minefield for Hutchinson and other Republicans.

It also offered a hint of how Hutchinson and others are hoping to reframe a debate that's pitting establishment figures in his party against conservative activists in the coming months.

"I hope the conversation can shift away from a brand, which Common Core state standards is a brand, to what are the Arkansas standards that we need to have the ability to move our state forward," State Education Commissioner Johnny Key told reporters after the recommendations were released.

The Common Core standards are math and English benchmarks that have been adopted by a majority of states and describe what students should know after completing each grade. The Obama administration embraced the standards and encouraged states to use them, but Common Core has faced increasing criticism, primarily from conservatives.

Throughout his campaign for governor and his first several months in office, Hutchinson has tried to walk a fine line on the issue by stressing the need for standards but vowing to take a look at the future of Common Core.

"I've consistently said whatever standards we resolve that we need to make sure they're high standards and have high expectations for our students and that's critically important and that they're measurable," he said last year as he campaigned with former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush, who has faced criticism during his presidential bid from some conservatives for his Common Core support.

That look, based on the task force's recommendations, isn't going to end anytime soon. The panel called on Hutchinson to conduct a comprehensive review of Common Core, saying the state should have "complete and unfettered control" over its standards.

Republican Lt. Gov. Tim Griffin, whom Hutchinson tapped to head the task force, rejected the idea it was punting on the issue by calling for a deeper review. Griffin said it doesn't make sense for Arkansas to drop Common Core immediately before reviewing what would take its place.

"That's like saying I'm going to get a new car but I'm going to get rid of the car I've got even though I haven't found a new one yet," Griffin said last week.

The recommendations issued Thursday actually hedged even more from what Griffin said days earlier. Griffin had said he'd recommend making changes to the standards where necessary and even re-naming them.

"I believe we should change the standards where they need to be changed and we should completely make them our own," he said previously. "You wouldn't want to call that Common Core because it wouldn't be what it was."

It's unclear just how far Hutchinson is from finding a solution on Common Core. The governor thanked the panel for its work but didn't indicate which of the recommendations he'd adopt.

But its recommendations are unlikely to be easily replicated by two other task forces trying to thread the needle on equally divisive issues — Medicaid expansion and highway funding.

The legislative task force on the future of Arkansas' compromise Medicaid expansion will need a more definitive answer on what to do with the more than 200,000 receiving subsidized coverage. The panel formed to study Arkansas' growing highway funding gap is just as unlikely to urge further review on an issue that's gnawed at the state for years.

In other words, the time the task force bought the governor on Common Core may be quickly eaten up by finding the other Arkansas solutions he's promised.


Andrew DeMillo has covered Arkansas government and politics for The Associated Press since 2005. Follow him on Twitter at http://www.twitter.com/ademillo

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