Report: Right-wing extremists use Common Core attacks to undermine public education

WASHINGTON, DC - AUGUST 28: Thousands gather for the
Glenn Beck at “Restoring Honor” rally at Lincoln Memorial in 2010. (Photo by Nikki Kahn/The Washington Post)

A year ago I wrote about how extreme right-wing rhetoric against the Common Core State Standards was clouding a substantive debate about  the Common Core State Standards initiative. Now a report by the Southern Poverty Law Center details how right-wing extremists are using Core opposition are using conspiracy theories and misinformation to undermine the very notion of public education.

The report, called “Public Schools in the Crosshairs: Far-Right Propaganda and the Common Core State Standards,” distinguishes between legitimate criticism of the standards — which comes from various points on the political spectrum — and the right-wing campaign to cast the initiative as a “nefarious plot” by liberals “to turn public schools into anti-American, anti-God indoctrination camps that churn out submissive automatons who will unquestionably serve the interests of the government and big business.”

This campaign, it says, is really “a proxy for a broader assault on public education itself” and is coming at a time when public schools have been weakened by funding cuts, “vitriolic political attacks on teachers and their unions, and state programs to privatize schools through vouchers, charter schools and other ‘school choice’ measures.”

It identifies participants in this extremist campaign as including Fox News, the John Birch Society, tea party factions and leaders of the Christian Right. They include Phyllis Schlafly, who has attacked the Common Core for what she says is “active promotion of gay marriage.” (It doesn’t.) Glenn Beck says the standards initiative is “evil” and an attempt to impose “communism” on America. (It isn’t.) The Freedom Project, affiliated with the radical right John Birch Society, says the Core is an “absolute appropriation of Soviet ideology and propaganda” and says it is mainstreaming homosexuality, promiscuity and other practices. (It isn’t.)

Also fueling this viewpoint are advocacy groups funded by David and Charles Koch, billionaire industrialists who have funded many conservative causes and political candidates. The report quotes a story published last January by Politico that tells about a draft action plan by the Koch-affiliated FreedomWorks group aimed at undercutting public schools. The story says:

“First, mobilize to strike down the Common Core. Then push to expand school choice by offering parents tax credits or vouchers to help pay tuition at private and religious schools. Next, rally the troops to abolish the U.S. Department of Education. Then it’s on to eliminating teacher tenure.”

A key tool in the campaign, it says, is a 90-minute film called “IndoctriNation: Public Schools and the Decline of Christianity in America” which was released in 2011 which features the producer, Colin Gunn, traveling around the United States in a bus with his family and talking to various “education authorities” who are really extreme libertarians, evangelical preachers, teachers who have left public schools because they couldn’t bring Jesus Christ into the classroom and politicians who oppose public schools. The film won the “best documentary” prize in 2012 at the San Antonio Independent Film Festival, a Christian-oriented movie showcase, and is sold on the Web site of Alex Jones, a conspiracy theorist who, the report says, views public schools as ” ‘part of a wicked plan” by ‘sick deviants’ to enslave humanity under a satanic New World Order” that worships Lucifer.

The authors of the new report note that it would be a mistake to dismiss these views as belonging to a small segment of society because, in fact, the ideas they are espousing are themselves spreading into the mainstream as misinformation and outright lies about the Core are spread. They also spend some time discussing the legitimate criticism that has been raised by schools, policymakers educators and families about the Core:

•Education historian and researcher Diane Ravitch has asserted that the Common Core was not developed according to the principles established by the American National Standards Institute. Ravitch says her reason for opposing the standards is not the content but rather concerns about the transparency of the development process and the exclusion of informed, concerned interests such as early childhood educators and special education experts.

•Some critics see the Gates Foundation’s support as overwhelmingly disproportionate. The fact that the foundation not only funded—directly and indirectly—such a large percentage of the development of the standards but also the validation and some implementation measures has raised concerns about the ethics and desirability of a single private entity being able to influence a public initiative of the Common Core’s scope.

•Some educators oppose the Common Core out of concerns that the standards depart from best practices for teaching and supporting culturally diverse youth. One such critique refers to the reduced emphasis on student reflection and experience in the writing standards. Others point to the lack of diversity in exemplar texts.

•Many teachers and administrators find the implementation timeline of the Common Core unrealistic, noting that the rigor of the standards has bumped the bar so high that it will take years to actually reach it. Meanwhile, pressure on schools to show immediate and measurable improvement makes it difficult for them to chart a slower and more deliberate path to implementation.

•While Race to the Top funding is not directly tied to Common Core adoption, it is tied to the adoption of college and career readiness standards, and more points were awarded to states that adopted the Common Core. Some critics saw the Race to the Top stipulations as federal strong-arming that allowed the Obama administration to paint state adoption as entirely voluntary when, in fact, there were potential financial consequences for opting out.

•Many progressives criticize the role that the Common Core plays in magnifying the the toxic testing culture that NCLB and its high-stakes testing made a feature of life in public schools. They note that corporate interests are served whenever testing companies have a mandated market, and that the quick implementation period is, in fact, feeding these interests by creating an urgent need for implementation materials.

 

The Southern Poverty Law Center fights hate and bigotry and seeks justice for the vulnerable through litigation, education, and other forms of advocacy.

 

Valerie Strauss covers education and runs The Answer Sheet blog.
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Valerie Strauss | May 8