Mike Neal gets annoyed when he talks about politicians in his state. Just three years ago, when the Common Core State Standards for education were implemented, no one had a problem with them, says Neal, president of the Tulsa, Okla., Regional Chamber of Commerce.
"It's been a really frustrating situation to the business community in Oklahoma in that we've all been on the same page, from the governor, the House, the Senate, school board members," Neal says. "They've all been behind this."
Now, things are different.
"You've got a lot of people just running scared," Neal says.
That's because they're running for re-election, he explains. This spring, Republicans and Democrats have been bombarded by opponents of the standards and told, "if you support Common Core, we're going to beat you, and we'll beat you over this one single issue."
The threat is real. What's not real, Neal says, are the arguments being used to threaten legislators — namely, that it's a federal scheme to tell teachers what to teach, that private groups will mine and profit from test results, and that Common Core will take local control of schools away from Oklahomans. Neal says that's not true.
"Despite what some fringe groups may say, we don't think it takes [local control] away at all," he says.
Jenni White is founder of ROPE, which stands for Restore Oklahoma Public Education, a fervent opponent of the standards.
"This is about people who are concerned about the direction of education in Oklahoma and across the nation today," White says.
White is also a lifetime Republican, a mother of five and a former science teacher. She says ROPE has not threatened elected officials, but it has shown them why the adoption of the new standards was a mistake.
"You're talking about a set of standards that was created completely outside of the state, in which taxpayers had no voice," White says. "So parents have risen up and said, 'Wait a minute. We need to feel like we have some control over the education of our children.' And that has frustrated the Chamber of Commerce, who, really, isn't for parents. They're for businesses."
That argument persuaded Oklahoma state Rep. Jason Nelson to co-author a repeal of Common Core.
"What the bill does is to say that the state cannot cede its discretion or control over our standards or assessments," Nelson says.
But Mike Neal of the Tulsa Chamber of Commerce says a repeal would be a costly step backward.
"We, in this state right now, waste outrageous amounts of money on remediation for students that come out of high school with good grades but they're not ready for higher education," Neal says. "They're not ready to be hired by businesses. ... They're not going to be able to compete."
Neal worries that later this month Oklahoma is likely to become the second state, along with Indiana, to dump the core standards. What happens after that?
"I think that's an excellent question, and it's something that we would like to know the answer to as well," White says.
She says that assuming lawmakers vote to drop the standards, schools will return to the old state standards, which even she concedes weren't great. But still: "We would really prefer to go back to those while we're preparing a really great set of standards," White says.
That, business leaders say, will take schools back to square one, with no guarantees that Oklahoma will end up with standards as good as Common Core.