The state’s highest court dealt a critical blow Friday to an effort to scrap the state’s adoption of the Common Core classroom standards, striking down a proposed November ballot question.
In a unanimous ruling, the Supreme Judicial Court did not consider the merits of Common Core. But in scrutinizing the legal language, the court feared the multipart question would have put voters in the “untenable position” of deciding “two separate public policy issues” with a single yes-no vote.
The ruling came just days before the anti-Common Core group — which says it has collected 130,000 signatures since last year — was poised to clear the eighth and final hurdle to qualify for the ballot.
“No emotions can really express how disappointed we are with this decision,” said Donna Colorio, who has been leading the signature-gathering effort. “We feel that our voices are being silenced.”
Supporters of the national math and English literacy/language arts standards, including top state education officials, say they reflect a long-established pattern of curriculum requirements and testing in Massachusetts that has helped make the state tops in the nation for K-12 education.
“I applaud the court for their decision,” said former education commissioner Robert V. Antonucci, chairman of a group that formed to protect Common Core here, and one of the plaintiffs in the legal challenge over the ballot question. “This allows us to get back to the business of doing what’s right, and doing it right.”
Both sides say they are motivated by what’s best for public school students. Colorio, a Worcester school committee member and Quinsigamond Community College professor, said she was acting first as a parent to try to repeal the national standards here. Her coalition describes itself as a group of parents, teachers, and other “citizen-activists” who consider Common Core an overreach.
“I believe it’s another example of big money using intimidation tactics to do what’s best for them and not the children of the state,” said Colorio, adding that her group will submit its final signatures to the secretary of state anyway in a symbolic gesture; Friday’s ruling will keep them from the ballot.
Under the petition process in Massachusetts, Colorio’s group — and 34 others seeking to bring a question before the voters in 2016 — first had to submit the proposed question and 10 voter signatures to the attorney general’s office last August. The attorney general then had a month to decide if the wording of those questions was constitutionally valid, certifying this question and about 20 others and filing them with the secretary of state.
Proponents of those questions then had to gather 64,750 signatures and submit them to the state by last November. Only this question and six others made it that far. If Beacon Hill did not then take up and pass the measure in the spring — it did not — the question backers had to submit another 10,792 voter signatures by this coming Wednesday to get on the ballot.
But Antonucci and other Common Core supporters — a collection initially of 10 people, with help from the law firm Foley Hoag and the Massachusetts Business Alliance for Education — intervened, challenging the attorney general’s approval of the question’s legal language.
The proposed question had called for: rescinding the state Board of Elementary and Secondary Education’s 2010 vote to adopt Common Core; restoring previous Massachusetts curriculum standards; establishing a new process for developing future frameworks; and annually publishing the questions and answers from the previous year’s assessment tests.
The high court found that while those issues might be related, they fail to meet the constitutional standard for “coherence.” And publishing the tests, it said, would force the state to invest in creating new tests for each grade and subject each year — a taxpayer expense not hinted at in the question’s wording.
In a statement, state education commissioner Mitchell Chester endorsed the court ruling.John R. Ellement of the Globe staff contributed to this report. Eric Moskowitz can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.