Wingnuts' Common Core insanity: Newest, craziest attack on public schools yet

The serious debate we should be having is being drowned out by right-wing nonsense, education expert tells Salon

Published May 16, 2014 12:30PM (EDT)

Glenn Beck                            (AP/Timothy D. Easley)
Glenn Beck (AP/Timothy D. Easley)

Comedian Louis C.K. and public intellectual Diane Ravitch may be the most prominent critics of the Common Core, but they're hardly alone. The Common Core State Standards Initiative, as it's officially called, is an effort to establish consistent educational standards across the entire United States. And as is the case with any major aspect of the general education reform movement, it has inspired great controversy.

On the left, Common Core is derided as yet another manifestation of the education reform movement's obsessive rationalization and data fetishism. Chicago Teachers Union president Karen Lewis, for example, recently came out against the new standards, describing them as "an overreach of federal power into personal privacy as well as into state educational autonomy" that "eliminates creativity in the classroom and impedes collaboration."

And on the right? Well, the antipathy is often no less pronounced, but as a new report from the Southern Poverty Law Center shows, the criticisms leveled against the Common Core by right-wing extremists tend to be, in a word, crazy. Often, they're far less about the standards themselves than a generalized hatred for secularism and public education, one that has roots stretching all the way back to the 1950s and is most pronounced among religious Southern conservatives who worry Big Brother is trying to turn their progeny liberal.

Earlier this week, Salon talked about the new report, and the far right's assault on Common Core, with SPLC's Teaching Tolerance director, Maureen Costello. Following is a transcript of our conversation, lightly edited for clarity and length.

What made you want to study the anti-Common Core movement on the right?

We wanted to shed some light on the nature of the debate, because you can’t pick up a newspaper these days (if in fact you pick up newspapers) or open your online news source without seeing some kind of headline about the Common Core. I’ve been in education for over 30 years and it's really only been recently that you’ve had educational topics in the national headlines. That’s a little bit unusual.

What also came to our attention was that [Common Core] evokes a very lively debate about real issues, and issues about whether the standards are appropriate at all grade levels; whether they are being implemented too quickly; whether, in fact, there should be more time for implementation before there’s any kind of testing done; and what ... those tests should look like; and should teacher evaluations be linked to the standards or, rather, linked to the tests? Are we troubled by the role of big money — Gates Foundation money, other foundations’ money — in developing these standards? Those are legitimate debate questions.

But what we began to notice was some spectacularly bizarre allegations being made about the standards, and that a lot of the so-called debate, particularly coming from the right ...  saw this as "big government" taking over and ... talked about "indoctrination camps" in the same ways that some folks from the right talk about FEMA camps. There's this notion that ... data was going to be collected on individuals and that they would be tracked for the rest of their lives because of the Common Core ...

So we started looking more at the stuff that was coming out of the right, and what we saw was that Common Core was just the latest and best weapon [against public schools], and that there was a real pattern over the last 30 or 40 years of withdrawal from the public school system in reaction to desegregation, to school prayer decisions on the Supreme Court, to the rise of sex education … There’s been a series of topics associated with making education more secular and reflecting a more multicultural and diverse society that has steadily pushed the right wing to further withdraw from the public school system.

So we wanted to see if the dots connected. Were the same people who were making absurd comments about the Common Core also previously the same people who were saying there shouldn’t be public schools, or public schools should bring God back or whatever? We found there’s an enormous amount of overlap.

Who are some of the leaders of the right-wing anti-Common Core movement?

The most familiar one is Glenn Beck ... I saw that he has a new book out against the Common Core. So he certainly is one of the more prominent ones.

Then you ... have the American Principles Project, which is providing a lot of the intellectual backbone and organizing force against it. You have the Heartland Institute, which is based in Chicago. There’s to some degree the Heritage Foundation, and the American Enterprise Institute ... But you also have groups like Freedom Works; so there’s those very, very conservative groups. And then if we get a little more extreme, you’ve got groups like the John Birch Society that have come out against it; you have some Tea Party groups certainly that have; [and Phyllis Schlafly's] Eagle Forum. And in the states where there are local chapters of Eagle Forum, they’re usually very dedicated to defeating the Common Core as well ...

[I]t’s hard to put your finger on one single group that’s leading it, except all the arguments start to look the same after a while. And in any state where there’s been, what appears to be a grass-roots movement — states like Utah or Arkansas or Indiana, which was the first — there’s, like, 25 [anti-Common Core] groups. They're usually like “Mothers Against Common Core,” or the state version of the Eagle Forum or something like that. But many of them are going to the same places for their information.

Is Common Core an issue that these people cared about before Obama became president?

I don’t think so; but that’s not to say that they haven’t cared about schools ... [W]e’ve got statements from people like Jerry Falwell that call for an end to secular public schooling that go back to the 1970s ... You also have to recognize that this is the population ... that is most likely to home-school. In the South, this is the population that has been more likely to take their kids out of public schools, especially if those public schools are overwhelmingly African-American.

So there’s already been a kind of concerted attack-by-withdrawal on the public school system [from the right]. And, certainly, if you look at some of the rallies and photos from the rallies against Common Core, it’s not just school-age parents; it’s older people who — and I’m not saying they don’t have a stake, certainly we all should have a stake in our schools — but you get the feeling [that] this is a reaction to something that is not just "my child’s schooling" but this belief that they’re losing the America they knew. That definitely precedes Obama.

One of the arguments in the report that I found most interesting goes like this: There is a legitimate debate over Common Core that should be happening, but the right-wing anti-Common Core movement is sucking the oxygen out of the room by having us discuss their more fantastical criticisms. 

I’ve certainly had conversations with school leaders who’ve described the fact that they have to assure people that no, they’re not doing iris scans on children. Well, you know, when you’re a school leader and you have to explain something that is a big change and instead you have to talk about iris scans, it does make it very difficult to have a rational conversation about the change.

Is the right-wing anti-Common Core movement stronger in certain regions of the country than others?

Yes. And the anti-Common Core looks different in different parts of the country. The one we’re talking about [in this report] is very strong in the South. And many of our examples came from Alabama, because we’re in Alabama and we were able to send people to the meetings. And, here, people are talking about how Common Core is going to convince their children to adopt another religion, going to tell them that climate change was all about ... turning them into environmental "green serfs," was going to push unwanted sexual lifestyles upon them, etc. It’s almost like every [right-wing] fear that you can imagine is being pinned onto the Common Core.

The whole thing about people worrying their kids' irises are going to be scanned and catalogued, it reminds me of the Obamacare "death panels." Are there any specific, commonly cited worries that right-wing opponents of Common Core bring up, the way "death panels" were brought up so frequently during the Obamacare debate?

Well, "indoctrination" is used a lot, the notion of schools as “left-wing indoctrination camps.” A lot of people ... don’t understand the difference between standards and curriculum (the difference is in this case, standards are kind of the skills a student should know, and curriculum is exactly what you teach, the books you use, the stories you use, the topics, etc.) [so] a lot of people think [Common Core] means that everybody is going to be learning the same thing across the United States ... so you get accusations that it’s designed to turn kids into automatons and robots.

Some of the more extreme folks ... are folks who already have conspiracy theories; so they think it’s a part of Agenda 21, which they see as this New World Order agenda. Many people talk about it being Communist or Soviet-like or socialist, so there’s that kind of thing. Nothing quite like death panels but a lot of very similar things.

Oh, and my favorite: "Government schools." And that’s a really subtle change, but y'know, for 150 years we’ve talked about public schools ... and public schools give the sense of it's your neighborhood school and it’s for all of us, and it’s a nice, positive thing. And now they call them “government schools," as if it’s a place where you have no control over it, and they’re going to take your child and turn them into a slave to Obama.

The dynamic on the right in terms of Common Core reminds me of the debate over immigration reform, where you have the supposedly more moderate, business-oriented wing of the GOP at odds with the more ideological, Tea Party wing. Generally, Republican politicians and leaders try to straddle that divide and have it both ways. With Common Core, are you seeing a similar thing, with Republican heavyweights trying to have it both ways and please both sides?

I think what you’re seeing is slippage. Somebody like Mike Huckabee, for instance, went from being a supporter [of Common Core] to suggesting that maybe states should adopt it, but not call it Common Core; and now he's kind of backing away entirely and suggesting Common Core's not a good thing at all. You had [Kentucky Sen.] Rand Paul talk about it as a dangerous curriculum ... Lots of people are talking about the fact of [former Florida Gov.] Jeb Bush’s connection to not just Common Core but lots of these school reform movements as a poison pill for his [2016] prospects ... What you’re seeing now is a lot of these folks backtracking.

Besides the fact that it has distorted the debate and wasted people's time — which is no small thing — what are you worried the right-wing anti-Common Core movement might do if it's not checked?

I have two concerns. One is that, if and when they do damage to the Common Core; or if and when the Common Core has setbacks — which is almost certain given the number of people who hate it — I think that the right will be very emboldened and will feel that they should take credit for it ... They’re going to take credit and they’re going to be emboldened and then they’re going to proceed with the rest of [their] agenda, which apparently Freedom Works has laid out, which is: OK, organize the forces against the Common Core, [and then] take those mobilized people and fight for school vouchers and tax credits for private schools. (And I think that’s the real thing they want.) Then eliminate the federal Department of Education, and, finally, teacher tenure ...

Another one of the things that we’re really concerned about is, how much more can you weaken an already weakened system? If you convince people that these are "government schools" that can do no good, and erode the confidence in public schools, a lot of people will vote to give their tax money to private schools. And who gets left in the public schools? It’s the kids who are most vulnerable. And, of course, those are the kids who, it would seem, most people are not going to vote to educate those kids. And that’s what I’m afraid of, that by recasting the narrative around public schools, what we’re really doing is walking away from the most vulnerable kids in our society ...

We just feel like it’s no accident that what you have is upwards of 2.5 million people who are home schooling now [and] the vast majority of them are white, middle-class and conservative. They’ve withdrawn [their kids] from the public school system. What they want to do is withdraw their tax support, as well. And other people will just withdraw because it doesn’t involve them anymore, they’ve aged out of it. We’re in trying economic times; why pay for something that only benefits those people? And the other problem is this narrative that education is really just about what goes to me and my child, and people are not talking about the benefits to the country as a whole, or to the community, of having an educated populace.

By Elias Isquith

Elias Isquith is a former Salon staff writer.

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