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Gov. Scott Walker said Tuesday the state should have more rigorous academic standards than the Common Core State Standards, which Wisconsin was one of the first states to adopt in 2010.

“I’d like to have Wisconsin have its own unique standards that I think can be higher than what’s been established and what’s been talked about at the national level,” Walker told reporters.

Until recently, Walker has stayed out of the public debate over the Common Core standards, which were developed over the last several years by teachers, researchers and education experts from across the country.

Walker’s comments come after conservative groups began pushing for the state to abandon the standards. Some liberal groups also oppose them.

A spokesman for Walker didn’t respond to requests for clarification, and it remained unclear exactly what Walker meant by the comments, including whether he believes the state should abandon the standards.

Fellow Republicans state Sen. Luther Olsen of Ripon and state Rep. Steve Kestell of Elkhart Lake, the chairmen of the Senate and Assembly education committees, said they were puzzled by Walker’s pronouncement.

They noted the standards — which cover math and language arts but no other subjects — are a floor, not a ceiling, for what schools should teach. Changing the standards at this point also would bear an additional cost.

“(Schools) already bought curriculum, principals are telling teachers to step it up and all of the sudden the governor is sending mixed signals,” Olsen said. “What does that mean?”

Walker and the Legislature already approved two budgets that laid the groundwork and funded new tests related to the standards, said Patrick Gasper, a spokesman for Superintendent of Public Instruction Tony Evers, who supports the Common Core standards.

“The Common Core State Standards are rigorous, internationally benchmarked education standards that identify what students need to know to be well prepared for career or college,” Gasper said. “They are the foundation of all work done over the past five years to improve education in Wisconsin, and local school districts have already spent the past three years working to implement them.”

The Common Core standards were developed by the National Governors Association and the Council of Chief State School Officers and have been adopted by 45 states and the District of Columbia.

The standards now are being implemented in schools across the country. In Wisconsin, students will be tested based on the Common Core standards starting next school year.

But some tea party conservatives have criticized the standards, saying they’re not rigorous enough and take local control away from states and school districts, labeling the standards “Obamacore.”

Other states have wavered in their initial support for the Common Core in response to pressure from tea party groups. Florida Gov. Rick Scott on Monday directed his state board of education to back out of a consortium developing one of the Common Core benchmark tests and review the standards for ways to strengthen them and prevent “federal intrusion.”

Wisconsin’s 2013-15 state budget requires the Department of Public Instruction, the Legislative Fiscal Bureau and a Legislative Study Council to conduct a review of Common Core implementation. It also requires several public hearings on the standards. The provision was added by Rep. Dean Knudson, R-Hudson, during the Joint Finance Committee’s review of the budget.

The Legislative Fiscal Bureau recently estimated Common Core implementation will cost school districts between $25 million and $174.5 million, with the lower cost more likely. The new tests will cost the state $14.6 million in 2014-15, or $8.3 million more than it currently spends on testing.

In August, a group of 40 conservative activists wrote an open letter to Walker asking him to encourage the National Governors Association to retract its support for the Common Core. They also picketed outside the event in Milwaukee.

In the letter, they listed several concerns, including that the standards “will dumb down education in many states in the name of elevating standards.”

Common Core advocates, including the conservative Thomas B. Fordham Institute, say the standards are more rigorous and detailed than what Wisconsin previously had in place. Michael Brickman, Fordham’s national policy director and a former Walker aide, said states have the ability to modify the standards to meet their own goals.

“If Gov. Walker wants to lead a conversation about how to use some of the Common Core’s flexibilities to make the standards an even better fit for Wisconsin children, we’d support that,” Brickman said. “If he does, however, he should demand that critics articulate specific places the rigor of the already strengthened standards might be improved.”

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Matthew DeFour covers state government and politics for the Wisconsin State Journal.

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