The special interests behind national curriculum and testing mandates are pouring millions into public relations and lobbying this spring after parents across the country began to oppose and destabilize their big project. Friday, Politico reported that the Business Roundtable and Chamber of Commerce are buying pricey ads on Fox News and mobilizing their state chapters to keep lawmakers in line. The same day, Bill Gates joined George Stephanopoulos to continue branding the Common Core mandates as a catalyst for improving U.S. education. Gates has joined with left-leaning philanthropies on a communications push worth more than $2.35 million.
Even the federal government is in the game. Through the Common Core testing organizations it exclusively funds, the feds spend at least $9.9 million to promote Common Core, largely through locating teachers who like the project and training them as spokespeople. The Fox News ads will also feature teachers, since focus groups have found them to be well-received pitch-men.
Since January 1, lawmakers in at least 23 states have proposed to amend or repeal Common Core. This spring’s state legislative sessions mark the last real chance to ditch it, so the battle has escalated.
This fall, federally funded and controlled Common Core tests are slated to roll out and essentially cement it (until the next big thing). These tests and their corresponding curriculum mandates will influence almost everything about most American schools: teacher evaluations, textbooks, learning software, school funding, even student grades. In 2013, most parents and teachers first met Common Core. Some began to complain about federal overreach, lack of public debate, pilot test questions and format, open-ended data collection, academic quality, technology costs for the all-online tests, and lack of training for teachers.
In Oklahoma this week, Gov. Mary Fallin and the Oklahoma Chamber of Commerce worked overtime to keep a Common Core repeal bill from getting a hearing or vote. Eyewitnesses said the governor pulled senators off the statehouse floor to lobby them to kill the bill. It worked, but only halfway: Senate leaders killed the Senate bill, but a House version passed 78-12.
Also working the floor was Jenni White, a mother of five (two adopted) and former science teacher whose main weapon against the business coalitions and their millions is her smartphone. White’s family checkbook covers her frequent trips to the statehouse to counter well-paid, hardened lobbyists and career backroom dealers. She and a small band of moms have been patrolling the statehouse, visiting lawmakers’ offices to look them in the eye and remind them that hundreds of Oklahomans have repeatedly swarmed the capitol on their own dimes just to get their bill a hearing.
“It’s never been about kids or parents, it’s about ‘the Chamber of Commerce can help me with my campaign,’” White fumed from the capitol late Wednesday.
White has counterparts everywhere. In Kansas, it’s Kristin George.
“I look at my kids and I can’t imagine not fighting back for what I see as their whole future in education,” George says over the phone as her preschooler pesters her in the background. “It’s so much more to me than just standards. My son will tell me, ‘Mom, I think you’ve had enough computer time today.’ I feel like I’m fighting something because of them, and then taking time from them to do it.”
U.S Education Secretary Arne Duncan was right about one thing when he attacked anti-Common Core activists again in November: like George, they are mostly mothers. The media still usually labels Common Core opposition as Tea Party-driven, and that’s true to some extent, but the real drivers are mothers who saw Common Core in their kids’ classrooms and thought it degraded instruction.
Pack ‘n Play in tow, George frequently drives five hours to Topeka to lobby for legislation to curtail or repeal Common Core. She stays with her in-laws, leaving her five- and two-year-old sons there while she and other mothers trot to legislators’ offices for hours before crucial hearings and votes.
“The grassroots has only gotten stronger across the country and in Kansas,” she says. They will need strength to compete. Common Core’s supporters include the world’s largest nonprofit organization (the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, which has spent more than $172 million to underwrite Common Core), President Barack Obama, and big businesses such as Exxon Mobil and GE.
Business groups often believe the talking points that proclaim Common Core will end rising phenomena like workers who won’t show up on time, can’t read or do basic math, and loaf around on the job. These are business’s biggest complaints about the kids our education system turns out. Oddly, business interests seem to ignore not just the evidence that Common Core graduates will not be internationally competitive, but that family degradation is a major—perhaps the major—reason for workers’ eroding soft skills and academic incompetence. Ironically, White and George’s devotion to their families makes them the kind of mothers whose kids will be the productive citizens employers want schools to produce.
George has talked to moms in her library’s toddler reading group and held potlucks to tell others about Common Core. A Kansas Tea Party group passed around a blue bucket last year to pick up donations from a room of retirees and parents to cover an out-of-town speaker who criticized Common Core. Grassroots folks in New York tried a crowd-funding site to cover travel expenses for their two February Common Core speakers. They raised $1,005 toward their $5,000 goal.
Common Core opponents typically don’t have much money or prestige. They do have a common motivator: their kids. George’s biggest concern is her ability to have a say in the policies that affect her family.
“I grew up with parents who said, ‘You can do anything you put your mind to,’ and that was the beauty of the country we live in,” George said. “I don’t want to see that changed for my children.”
Joy Pullmann is a Heartland Institute research fellow and 2013-2014 Novak journalism fellow.