By Karen VanTil Gushta
Editor's Note: This is the third in a series of stories about Common Core, the controversial new educational agenda aimed at imposing federal government standards on every aspect of public and private education in America, which some are even calling "ObamaCore." The first part spelled out the high stakes for parents, students and education. The second part followed the money trail behind Common Core.
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The battle over the deceptively titled Common Core State Standards Initiative, or CCSSI, is raging, and the rhetoric is fierce. Supporters of the national standards have called their opponents "right-wing nuts" and "black helicopter" types.
"All of us get lumped together as 'the fringe,' 'the far right,' tea partiers,' etc.," said Jane Robbins, co-author of the report "Controlling Education from the Top: Why the Common Core is Bad for America."
"When they don't have the facts on their side they resort to ad-hominem," she said.
Opponents of Common Core claim it is the product of progressive elitists who want to put all children under control of federal government bureaucrats. That view was reinforced when a panelist at the liberal think-tank Center for American Progress discounted the opposition as only a "tiny minority," claiming such views should be ignored because "the children belong to all of us."
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The term "Common Core" has become "toxic," according to former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee. He continues to support the standards in spite of a unanimous resolution by the Republican National Committee in April 2013 to oppose them. Huckabee told state education leaders at a meeting of the Council of Chief State School Officers: "Rebrand it, refocus it, but don't retreat."
So far, Arizona, Iowa, Florida and Pennsylvania have followed his advice, eliminating the name "Common Core" from their state standards.
'White suburban moms'
Education Secretary Arne Duncan claims opposition to Common Core is coming from "white, suburban moms" who are suddenly discovering their children are not "as brilliant as they thought they were." When Duncan's comments went viral, "white, suburban moms" quickly found many defenders in the blogosphere and opinion columns.
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In January, Duncan spoke to a gathering of curriculum professionals. As he lectured them on the distinction between standards and curricula, he asserted that "not a word, not a single semi-colon of curriculum [sic] will be created, encouraged, or prescribed by the federal government."
But Duncan's pep talk to curriculum specialists about their role in implementing the standards only increased the perception that it is indeed a federal, not a state, initiative. George Will noted in his Washington Post article "Doubts Over Common Core" that when the federal government initiates top-down "reforms" in education, any mistakes that result are "continental mistakes."
Will stated the obvious: "National standards must breed ineluctable pressure to standardize educational content. Targets, metrics, guidelines and curriculum models all induce conformity in instructional materials."
Indeed, textbook companies now advertise "Common Core Editions," and educational testing companies provide "Common Core-aligned" standardized tests.
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The link between the national SAT test and Common Core was forged when the College Board, which puts out the placement test for college-bound students, hired David Coleman as president. The Gates and Mott foundations gave Coleman's nonprofit, Student Achievement Partners, money to write the standards, which were commissioned by the Council of Chief State School Officers and the National Governors Association.
The new College Board assessments will start rolling out this year with the redesigned PSAT. The new SAT is scheduled for 2015. The once-venerable Iowa Test of Basic Skills is now Common Core-aligned, and even the GED is getting its first makeover since 2002 so it will line up with the standards.
Teachers withdraw support
Fearing this link between the national standards and high-stakes testing, the board of New York's teachers union voted unanimously Jan. 25 to withdraw its support for the national standards "as they are being implemented." The union board also declared no confidence in Education Commissioner John King Jr., a Common Core backer, and asked the Board of Regents to remove him. Union leaders urged the state education department to make "major course corrections to its failed implementation plan" and enact a three-year moratorium on the testing.
The Board of Regents responded to the concerns by giving public schools five more years to implement Common Core. Public school teachers will not be held accountable for student test scores for two years.
There is some movement in Congress to oppose the CCSSI. On Jan. 30, Sen. Pat Roberts, R-Kan., introduced Senate Bill 1974. It is now in the Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee, on which Roberts sits.
The bill, titled the "Learning Opportunities Created at the Local Level Act," would prohibit the federal government from coercing states to adopt education standards like Common Core. The act would forbid the federal government from intervening in a state's education standards, curricula and assessments through the use of incentives, mandates, grants, waivers or any other form of manipulation.
Roberts opposed the Obama administration's Race to the Top grant program, and he and nine other senators have gone on record against spending any federal funds to develop education curriculum or standards, including the Common Core. Given the present make-up of the Senate, Roberts' efforts may not gain much headway in Congress.
The real battle against Common Core is being waged in the states. As of Feb. 8, edu-blogger Mercedes Schneider had identified legislative action on the Common Core in 30 states.
"Legislators in most of these 30 states are advancing bills to halt the testing consequences of a CCSS that they admittedly do not understand – and for which they must now count the cost," Schneider wrote.
Initially, the only states that didn't compete for Race to the Top funds were Alaska, North Dakota, Texas and Vermont. For Texas legislators, that wasn't enough. They wanted to ensure the State Board of Education would not follow Alaska's example and adopt Common Core anyway. In June, Texas Gov. Rick Perry signed H.B. 462, effectively banning the Common Core State Standards from Texas schools. The bill had passed by a 140-2 vote in the Texas House.
Some states are now delaying implementation of the standards, such as New York. Illinois has bills in both legislative chambers to delay implementation. Colorado's legislation would delay them until public hearings have been held. Rhode Island wants to study and evaluate the standards.
After its Board of Education voted in 2010 to adopt the CCSSI, Indiana became the first to align its teacher preparation standards to Common Core. However, even members of the state legislature's education committees didn't know much about what the adoption entailed until they started hearing from alarmed parents when the standards began to impact school curricula.
As opposition to the standards spread, former Indiana Superintendent of Instruction Tony Bennett visited tea-party meetings around the state to defend them. His Democrat opponent in the 2012 election, Glenda Ritz, told parents she wanted to "pause" adoption of the Common Core.
When election results came in, Bennett was out, in spite of the $90,000 reportedly given by the Gates Foundation to fund pro-Common Core advertising on Indiana TV and radio. Last May, newly elected Indiana Gov. Mike Pence signed a bill delaying adoption of the Common Core. In January, the Indiana Senate Education and Career Development Committee voted to send a measure to the Senate floor to repeal the Common Core Standards. If the state legislature passes the bill, it would charge the State Board of Education with developing by July 1 new "college- and-career-ready standards," a favorite phrase with the pro-Common Core faction.
Erin Tuttle, founder of the grassroots Hoosiers Against Common Core, told the Indy Star that the State Board of Education should not make a few tweaks and slap the label "Indiana Standards" on any new guidelines. She said parents will notice if their children are assigned homework that looks like Common Core.
"Parents will be outraged. They will feel tricked," he said.
Former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush has been an active advocate of Common Core, not only in Florida but across the country. His nonprofit, Foundation for Educational Excellence, which received $500,000 from the Gates Foundation in 2010, has lobbied for the Core and sent letters to state legislators in embattled states.
Jane Robbins, senior fellow at the American Principles Project, said Jeb Bush "is the 'big gorilla' behind the Common Core movement."
"Bill Gates is the financier, but Jeb Bush is the one who is twisting the arms of all of these Republican governors and legislators around the country not to do the right thing and regain local control," Robbins said.
In 2013, after he was voted out as Indiana school chief, Bush’s protégé, Tony Bennett, was appointed Florida's Education Commissioner. His tenure didn't last long. He resigned after eight months when it was discovered he had been involved in a plan to improve the school evaluation grade of an Indiana charter school run by Christel DeHaan, a major donor to the Republican Party and to Bennett.
Now the question is whether Bush's influence in Florida is strong enough to stop efforts there to repeal Common Core. A bill to prohibit the State Board of Education from continuing to implement the Common Core Standards has been introduced in the Florida House, which convenes March 4. The bill (H.B. 25) would stop implementation until certain requirements are met for the adoption or revision of state curricular standards. It also would prohibit Florida from implementing Common Core-aligned assessments.
Common Core supporters are hoping H.B.25 won't go anywhere. It's being held in the House and Senate education committees until a companion bill is offered in the Senate. Karen Effrem, co-founder of the Florida Stop Common Core Coalition, said a Senate companion bill has been written and will be submitted.
Effrem said that since Florida is "the land of Jeb Bush," if these bills pass "it would be a huge shot in the arm to the anti-Common Core movement not only in Florida, but in the rest of the country."
"And that is why 'the powers that be' are fighting us so hard."
The Heritage Foundation, Heartland Foundation, Pioneer Institute and the American Principles Project, which produced the scathing report on Common Core, "Controlling Education from the Top: Why Common Core Is Bad for America," are all providing intellectual bullets and moral support to those on the battle lines. Co-authors of the APP report, Emmett McGroarty and Jane Robbins, have been traveling around the country to speak to groups that are fighting the standards.
Robbins said proponents of Common Core did not anticipate how much opposition they would face.
"They thought people would be sheep and roll over and accept what the experts told them to do; but it hasn't turned out that way," she said.
Arizona, Georgia, Kentucky, Louisiana, Maryland, Missouri, New Hampshire, New Mexico, Ohio, Oklahoma, South Carolina and Tennessee now have bills in their state legislatures to halt or abolish the standards.
Karen VanTil Gushta has a Ph.D. in philosophy of education and is a freelance writer and former educator with experience teaching at all levels, including graduate teacher education. In 2009, Coral Ridge Ministries published her first book, "The War On Children: How Pop Culture and Public Schools Put Our Kids at Risk." She writes regularly on the topics of protecting faith and freedom and defending the sanctity of human life.