Battle Lines Solidify Over Common Core

Increasing numbers of teachers and parents are expressing displeasure with new federal educational standards

Bill Gates at the Treasury Department in April 2010. The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation has reportedly donated $150 million toward the financing of the controversial Common Core educational program. (Wikimedia Commons)

Bill Gates at the Treasury Department in April 2010. The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation has reportedly donated $150 million toward the financing of the controversial Common Core educational program. (Wikimedia Commons)The war over the Common Core—the new federal standards imposed upon public schools in 45 states as well as in more than 100 Catholic dioceses— escalated last week when a beleaguered Education Secretary Arne Duncan launched a personal attack on “white suburban moms who—all of a sudden—their child isn’t as brilliant as they thought they were, and their school isn’t as good as they thought…and that’s pretty scary.”

Defending (poorly) the Common Core at a meeting for state school superintendents, Duncan believed he was among friends since these school officials have been the biggest beneficiaries of federal largesse and Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation money.  But these same superintendents have been the target of a strong grass-roots protest over the Common Core standards. In fact, superintendents have been on the front lines battling with both parents and teachers over the implementation of the Common Core. 

For the teachers who have been struggling with the overwhelming demands of the Common Core, there has been little help from their unions. In fact, Randi Weingarten, President of the American Federation of Teachers, has been one of the country’s biggest cheerleaders for what some teachers are derisively calling ObamaCore.

Penning op-eds for the New York Times and Huffington Post lauding the “tremendous potential” of the federal standards, Weingarten has attempted to ignore teachers’ concerns. Of course it might be easier for her to support the Common Core when her organization has been given more than $11 million to do so.  Since January, 2009, the American Federation of Teachers has received $11.3 million—with $5.4 million specifically targeted toward the Common Core—from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, the co-creators of the private-public partnership that developed the federal standards for local school districts.

Teachers are beginning to fight back. Creating dozens of state-based Facebook groups, teachers are mobilizing to challenge their unions and their state education officials. One group which calls itself the Badass Teachers Association, has more than 25,000 members. Bonnie Cunard, a teacher who manages the Facebook page for the 1,200 Florida BATs told a reporter for the Tampa Bay Times on August 26, 2013 that “It’s not just the Tea Party that’s skeptical of the Common Core … We on the left, like the folks on the right, are saying we want local control.”

Teachers and parents remain bewildered about how they lost control of the standards in their own schools. The federal takeover involved no teacher or parent input, and little involvement by elected representatives. It had to be done covertly because there are indeed laws protecting states against unwanted federal intrusion into the educational curriculum of local school districts. The General Education Provisions Act, the Department of Education Organization Act, and the Elementary and Secondary Education Act all protect states against such federalization.

The problem is that the “intrusion” has not been entirely “unwanted” by state political leaders—especially the governors and district superintendents of each state. Enlisting the state governors and school superintendents as allies in the creation of the curriculum through the National Governor’s Association, the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation used the lure of more than $150 million in grant money—and the promise of future federal funds—to convince the leaders of budget-strapped states to support the federal standards.

So far, the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation has committed $335 million to promote effective teaching and raise student achievement—both laudable goals—but much of that money is going to create the Common Core standards and develop new rating systems for teachers. And, although teachers and parents might have expected some help from conservatives, the Gates Foundation has been buying some of their support also. Awarding $959,116 to the right-leaning Thomas Fordham Institute, led by respected educator, Chester Finn, “to review the common core standards and develop supportive materials,” Finn has gone out of his way to laud the Common Core.

The Gates Foundation seems to have thought of everything. If teachers and parents thought they had allies in their local and national Parent Teacher Association, they would be wrong. The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation awarded $1 million to the PTA to “Mobilize Parents for Common Core.”

But, this battle is not over. An open letter to Weingarten from Mercedes Schneider, a member of the Louisiana Federation of Teachers accuses the union boss of misrepresenting teacher support for the Common Core, and “selling off” teachers: “I am asking you to halt the chummy alliance with Gates and other philanthropic reformers bent upon selling off my profession.” 

Undeterred, Weingarten responded to Schneider with continued support for the “potential” of the Common Core—pledging “our solidarity with the teachers and parents who are disgusted and demoralized by the botched implementation and ongoing testing fixation” that accompanied the Common Core.  Like the botched roll-out of the ObamaCare, Weingarten is blaming proper “implementation” as the problem with ObamaCore. 

While Duncan has apologized for his impolitic remarks, the truth is that blaming “white people” for opposition to President Obama’s attempts to federalize health care and education is a recurring theme of the President’s administration. Just a few days ago, Oprah Winfrey blamed racism for the criticism of the President and his policies. The truth is that many parents—not just white parents—and teachers know that the flaws in the federal standards are flaws at the Core—they see them as unworkable—and they are just beginning to fight.

• Related: “Catholic educators ask bishops to reject Common Core” by Catherine Harmon (Nov. 4, 2013).

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About Anne Hendershott 104 Articles
Anne Hendershott is Professor of Sociology and Director of the Veritas Center for Ethics in Public Life at Franciscan University in Steubenville, OH