Austin, Texas—On a recent sweltering weekend in Texas’ state capital, more than 1,000 parents and teachers were gathered in the Austin Convention Center for the annual National PTA convention, where education secretary and Common Core evangelist Arne Duncan was scheduled to speak.
Across the street, in a far more modest conference room, a few dozen conservative activists—mostly from Texas and Washington, D.C.—were gathered for a meeting of their own. Their mission? To ward off the Common Core, a set of educational standards now adopted in 44 states.
Texas has always been one of several states to reject the Common Core standards. As of June 17, state attorney general and gubernatorial candidate Greg Abbott made it illegal to use them. But for the people in this room, even a law asserting the state’s independence isn’t enough to assuage the threat Common Core poses to liberty, Christianity, and their children’s moral fiber.
The Common Core, developed by the National Governors Association and the Council of Chief State School Officers, is a set of rigorous standards in English and math, with an emphasis on critical thinking, nonfiction, and math concepts rather than memorization. While not a federal program, it’s strongly championed by the Obama administration; states who adopt the standards are eligible for Race to the Top funds.
The Common Core State Standards Initiative has been controversial ever since it was first announced in 2009, particularly in Texas— the state’s Commissioner of Education Robert Scott called it a “federal takeover” and a “cash for flunkers” program. The standards have come under fire even more in the last few months, after the rollout of the program’s newly designed tests. Opponents on the left object to its emphasis on testing and what they see as its move toward privatizing and corporatizing public education; a small but vocal faction on the right asserts that the Core is an example of government overreach. Groups on both sides object to what they characterize as its opaque, rushed implementation, invoking the phrase “guinea pigs” to refer to children who were blindsided by the new standards.
A recent Gallup poll showed that 61 percent of parents know little or nothing about the Common Core. But the 19 percent who view the standards “very negatively,” particularly in red states, are the parents driving the debate and making Common Core a wedge issue in the upcoming election. Prominent Tea Party members have denounced “Obamacore” as the epitome of a federal takeover. Several Republican governors in the past few months—Nikki Haley in South Carolina, Mike Pence in Indiana, Mary Fallin in Oklahoma, and Bobby Jindal in Louisiana, who once supported the standards—have repealed Common Core in their states as a result, many say, of pressure from small groups of local activists.
Austin’s #CanISee conference —as in, “Can I see what my children are learning?”— is a who’s-who of the far-right movement that some peg as fringe, but nevertheless gets results. They’re the voters who vow to use Common Core as a litmus test come November. They’re also the activists who Core supporters say are fueling myths and misconceptions about the standards.
For the mostly female, mostly older, all-white crowd, Common Core is more than an attack on states’ rights; it’s an affront to Christian, conservative values. These mothers and grandmothers see a campaign against Common Core as an extension of protecting the nuclear family. Eagle Forum, anti-feminist activist Phyllis Schlafly’s national organization, is a sponsor of the conference. In the foyer outside, booths proffer fliers about What You Need to Know About Marriage and How to Speak Up for Life.
“Really anything that affects the American family, we care about,” said Glyn Wright, executive director of Eagle Forum. “The nuclear family is the bedrock of any civilized society, and education defines the future of that family.”
The conference was organized by Alice Linahan, a cofounder of the conservative, Texas-based organization Women on the Wall. She got involved in the Common Core issue when another mom urged her to look into CSCOPE, an educational curriculum widely adopted in Texas schools in 2010 instead of Common Core. She realized that “Common Core and CSCOPE were one and the same,” and that the curriculum was in her three children’s schools. She called a community meeting in Argyle, Texas, and eventually, the board voted to defund the program. “We started thinking, ‘if we can do it in one school district, we can jump from district to district doing the same thing,’” she said. Linahan describes herself as “just a mom defending my child. It’s those motherly instincts to protect our children that’s motivated so many moms.”
Linahan and the other organizers’ objections to Common Core go beyond the idea of a top-down intrusion. A chart folded into the conference packets contrasted “traditional classical learning” with CSCOPE and Common Core’s “radical social justice agenda”: teachers are “facilitators” rather “authority figures,” the lessons focus on “subjectivity, feelings, emotions, beliefs” rather than the “Declaration of Independence, Bill of Rights, Constitution…phonics…Drill and Skill.” (Unlike Common Core, CSCOPE sets standards for social studies and science, too.)
“I want my children to know that two plus two is four, that there are absolutes, that there are right and wrong answers,” Linahan said. “These kiddos are not developmentally ready for this deeper, rigorous thinking.”
Linahan was alluding to math standards that require children to explain how they arrived at an answer, rather than memorize a formula. Critics on both the left and the right have complained that the standards are too hard; one math problem went viral in March after a frustrated father was stumped by his child’s homework. Common Core supporters say the program teaches kids problem-solving skills, and it’s up to educators to design a well-written curriculum.
Throughout the conference, speakers labeled Common Core “anti-Christian,” “collectivist,” and “violating the Constitution.” Speakers like State Rep. Bill Zedler, R-96th district, called for legislation that would force school districts to “choose” between state and federal funds. One audience member raised her hand and worried that her “grandchildren are being abused.” Another suggested that teachers and administrators using elements of the Common Core in Texas should go to jail.
Phyllis Schlafly, who asserted that Eagle Forum has been “involved with education issues for decades,” said over the phone that she’s seen Common Core material that was “very biased. I saw one sample of a fourth grade assignment, and it was a fictional piece about adultery. Adultery! I don’t think fourth graders need to learn about that.”
Common Core is not a prescribed curriculum, only a set of standards meant to guide teachers’ lessons. Teachers aren’t mandated to use specific materials. But many people at this conference—and others across the country—believe that mandated coursework can’t be far behind.
“We understand that national standards drive national testing, which will eventually drive a national curriculum,” Wright said. “We want to make sure local entities have control over what goes on in the classroom.”
Unlike most people in the room, Wright is childless and in her twenties. She interned for Schlafly after graduating from Baylor University, and jettisoned her plans for law school to work fulltime for Eagle Forum in Washington, D.C. During her tenure there, education has become one of her “pet issues.” Wright grew up in west Texas, “where a lot of my passion for fighting Common Core comes from. Texas is a beacon of hope for our country. It’s where the ashes of liberty are still smoldering.”
Julian Vasquez Heilig, associate professor of education policy and planning at the University of Texas-Austin, says conservative opposition to the Common Core in Texas “closely echoes the opposition nationally,” because, as Linahan fears, CSCOPE is indeed very similar to the Core. And since the majority of the country is adopting the standards, Texas textbooks do have elements of the Core because they’re used in so many other states.
Carolyn Heinrich, professor of public affairs at the University of Texas-Austin who sees an anti-Core sentiment as a “really core part of the Republican conservative belief in the state,” said teachers are probably doing their students a service by integrating Core material into their lessons.
“If you were a teacher, it would make sense for you to look at what students in 40-plus states are learning,” she said. “This is what employers will be looking for” when kids enter the workforce.
And for those who seek to hold educators accountable to the law, “there’s no way you can really enforce [not using Common Core] in the classroom, unless the teacher was stridently publicizing that they were using it.”
As for the right’s charges of an ideological slant (which far predate the Common Core), Heinrich said there’s no such thing as an objective curriculum. “You can always strive for that, but we’re humans creating this,” she said.
Heilig also connects the anti-Core sentiment in Texas to the “backlash to testing”—the state just went from mandating 15 end-of-course exams to five. This “testing fatigue,” he added, is something the left and the right have in common.
Randi Weingarten, president of the American Federation of Teachers, publicly supports Common Core but disagrees with the emphasis on evaluation. “Where I diverge from Arne Duncan is that you can’t make this all about testing and turn kids into an algorithm,” she said.
Weingarten detects a “deep distrust” from both the left and the right that has “gained momentum because of the abysmal implementation” of the standards—rushing to initiate high-stakes testing, for instance, at the expense of familiarizing parents and teachers with the material. Still, she balked at the idea of memorization and Linahan’s “absolute truths” being preferable to an analytical approach.
“There’s no middle-class job in America that doesn’t require critical thinking,” she said. “Kids need the skills to participate in the knowledge economy. They should have the ability to make their own decisions, and that’s what critical thinking and problem solving is all about.”
But if you ask the #CanISee attendees, Common Core and CSCOPE do the exact opposite.
“The Common Core is interested in controlling someone’s mind and taking away their individuality,” said Cathie Adams, president of Eagle Forum’s Texas chapter. “If [children] are taught classical education, they’re going to be liberty-loving and teach that to the next generation.”
Linahan said she was disturbed by a CSCOPE lesson about democracy that was aided by a TIME magazine article about the Arab Spring.
“Now what does the Arab Spring have to do with the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution?” she said. “Let’s train kids so they have the freedom to decide rather than being given an agenda.”
Heinrich thinks this fear of an “agenda” is misplaced. Critical thinking means “a close reading, a careful analysis of the arguments,” she said. Choosing a current event to analyze doesn’t mean teachers are pushing a pro-liberal agenda or leaving out American history. In fact, on the Common Core State Standards Initiative’s website, “America’s founding documents” are listed as “critical content” in the English language arts standards.
Not that Linahan and the other activists trust the Initiative’s claims. The panelists at the conference urged the audience to channel their anger into the midterm elections, even in Common Core-less Texas.
“When you start building a network, you’re bringing voters to the table,” said Linahan. Rep. Zedler didn’t hesitate to make campaign pitches, like the ultimatum of making districts choose between federal and state education funds. Greg Abbott emailed Linahan a statement, which she read to the audience, promising that if he became governor, he would “make sure that neither CSCOPE nor Common Core have any viability in the state of Texas.”
One conference-goer, Ginger Russell, founder of the blog Red Hot Conservative, made clear how important the Core will be when she visits the ballot box. “It’ll have a big impact on how I vote,” she said. “It more or less tells me if a candidate is for liberty, or if they’re not.”
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