Nationally endorsed education standards known as the Common Core are coming under fire in the Ohio legislature and state school board as schools begin implementation this year.
Endorsed by the National Governors Association and the Council of Chief State School Officers, the Common Core sets rigorous benchmarks for Ohio and 45 other states, with the goal to raise the quality of education and student performance.
However, critics — some of them strange bedfellows — are raising concerns about an invasion of personal privacy, an attack on states’ rights, a federal takeover, an unfunded mandate and a tool that could be used against teachers unions.
In public meetings and on blogs, the terms “Commie Core” and “the Obamacare of Education” can be heard and read. Tea party groups are organizing opposition. Glenn Beck told viewers: “It teaches that Communism is fantastic” and dumbs down math. Some state officials say constituents and parents confuse Common Core with eye scanners used in some Florida schools.
In Ohio, a bill sponsored by 14 Republicans seeks to block implementation, although the ranking Republicans on the House and Senate education committees say the proposed legislation has no legs.
Republicans in Indiana and Michigan have introduced legislation to defund or stall Common Core.
In Pennsylvania, the teachers union has joined the tea party in labeling the movement as an unfunded mandate.
The first round of Common Core test scores in Kentucky and New York raised concern about the level of U.S. student achievement using the more rigorous standards — even though the curriculum is not yet fully implemented.
Network of opposition
An offshoot of the Cincinnati chapter of the Ohio Tea Party, Ohioans Against Common Core, formed in March to oppose a perceived national takeover.
Posts on the group’s website characterize the curriculum as an “overt subversion of parental authority and statist indoctrination.”
The group claims no allegiance to big business or big government. “We are not lobbyists, nor are we paid organizers,” the mission statement reads. A single-issue advocacy group and its founder, along with the Ohio Tea Party, take credit for designing House Bill 237 and educating the Republicans who sponsor the bill.
“They’re looking for information and we’re educating them as fast as we can,” said Heidi Huber, founder of Ohioans Against Common Core.
The group draws on research conducted by Boston-based Pioneer Institute, a think tank that promotes “effective, limited and accountable government.”
Sarah Fowler, the State Board of Education representative for Summit, Portage and other counties east of Cleveland, quotes the Pioneer Institute in her questioning of the Common Core.
In a Beacon Journal interview, Fowler said she was not knowledgeable about the Common Core when she took office in January. She’s not alone. A PDK-Gallup poll released last week indicates that two in three Americans have never heard of Common Core.
“There’s concerns that it’s possibly the federal government removing more control from the local school districts to make decisions instead of helping them make better ones,” Fowler said, stressing that she speaks only for herself, not the entire board.
A home-school graduate elected in November, she was quoted in an article by the Education Action Group, a Michigan-based conservative advocacy organization, as saying she promised to reinstate parents’ “God-given” right to educate their children.
Tom Zawistowski, Ohio Tea Party president, applauds House Bill 237 supporters as “the most conservative Republicans in the House,” among them Kristina Roegner of Hudson and Matt Lynch — who represents a portion of Portage County.
Lynch in turn applauds Fowler as “probably the leading critic of Common Core on the State Board of Education.”
In 2008, the National Governors Association and the Council of Chief State School Officers, two bipartisan coalitions backed by funding from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, set the stage for what is now referred to as Common Core.
The report, Benchmarking for Success: Ensuring U.S. Students Receive a World-Class Education, cited the need for higher quality education. Incomes for college graduates rose seven times faster than non-college graduates as developing countries flooded the globe with a competitive workforce. Meanwhile, U.S. high school graduation rates, once the highest in the world, slipped 18 spots on a ranking of 24 industrialized countries.
President Barack Obama added his support — a move that mobilized opposition.
“To be really candid, the opposition is to the fact that the current president of the United States has applauded Common Core standards and I think if he rejected them the tea party would be on board with it,” said Gerald Stebelton, R-Lancaster, the House Education Committee chair.
Stebelton said stalling Common Core in Ohio would negate investments. In Akron, officials have administered countless professional development hours for staff and teachers and invested more than $4 million this year to upgrade online capabilities and computer networks to meet state testing requirements for Common Core by 2015.
“We’ve spent a lot of money and got a lot of people up to speed,” said Akron Public Schools Superintendent David James. “Then the legislature wants to pull the rug out from beneath us. That doesn’t make a whole lot of sense.”
A withdrawal would place Ohio among the nonparticipants — Texas, Virginia, Nebraska, Alaska and Minnesota — although Minnesota will partially implement some standards.
Opponents allege that Ohio was coerced into adopting Common Core by make-or-break federal grants through the Race to the Top program.
“The state didn’t have any idea what they were signing [with the Common Core]. There was a lot of double talk. There was a lot of confusion,” said Zawistowski, leader of the Ohio Tea Party.
Fowler, the state board member, said that House Bill 237 provides “an opportunity for legislative members to have an open and honest debate regarding the concerns many Ohioans have raised over the past six months, including: the loss of local input and direction in education, the creation of ‘one-size-fits-all’ standards and tests, the use of student assessment scores in teacher evaluation, the potential misuse of private student information, and the unknown costs associated with the online assessments including the statewide need for increased bandwidth and computer access for implementation to be effective.”
As for Gov. John Kasich, spokesman Rob Nichols said: “We don’t take a public position on every bill that enters the legislature.”
On this one, however, he has.
“Constantly raising achievement is essential to helping prepare our children for brighter futures, just as we must always stand up for Ohio’s tradition of local, independent, sovereign schools and the rights of parents and students,” Nichols said.
And, while aware of the arguments on both sides, Kasich says that if the bill were to pass through the legislature and land on his desk, he would not sign it.
Doug Livingston can be reached at 330-996-3792 or firstname.lastname@example.org.