There are plenty of rational arguments for why the Common Core State Standards Initiative is not the solution to reforming public education in the United States.
That the program is part of a liberal conspiracy to indoctrinate children and turn them into the homosexual slaves of a future totalitarian global government, is not one of them.
Common Core has been the subject of intense debate since it was first initiated by the National Governor’s Association in 2009. Created with the failures of past test-based standardization attempts—including No Child Left Behind—in mind, Common Core was designed to streamline K-12 education standards across the states and ensure that graduating high school students are sufficiently prepared to enroll in college courses or enter the work force.
Though the standards were quickly embraced by 44 states and the District of Columbia, they’ve sparked a backlash from politicians and education experts on both sides of the political spectrum. In March, Indiana, the first state to adopt the Common Core standards, became the first state to opt out, and just this year, some 100 bills were introduced in state legislatures to stop or slow the program’s requirements. According to a recent study by the University of Connecticut, only 39 percent of Americans have even heard of Common Core, but of those who have, 27 percent think it will not impact the quality of education in their communities and 30 percent say they think it will be detrimental.
Legitimate arguments against Common Core include the fact that the program is overwhelmingly funded by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation; that the short timeline for implementation is unrealistic and amplifies the high-pressure testing culture of No Child Left Behind; and that, while the program is completely optional, only states that have adopted “internationally benchmarked standards and assessments that prepare students for success in college and the workplace” are eligible for the Obama Administration’s Race to the Top competitive grants—and states that adopted Common Core standards by August 2010 received extra points on their Race to the Top applications. Education policy expert Diane Ravitch opposes Common Core because the standards were developed behind closed doors, without the help of informed, interested parties like early childhood and special education experts, and thrust upon schools before their effectiveness could be tested. Just last month, comedian Louie C.K. got on the anti-Common Core bandwagon, tweeting pictures of the tests his young daughters are practicing for at their New York City public school, calling it “this massive stressball that hangs over the whole school,” and blaming Common Core for making his kids hate math.
But as a new report by the non-profit Southern Poverty Law Center points out, the loudest, angriest voices in the Common Core debate are making a case that is not even remotely based in reality. From the farthest reaches of the Christian right to Conservative pundits and even elected officials, a radical, factless propaganda campaign has been building that, the SPLC suggests, looks poised to take down not only Common Core but the entire institution of public education.
According to the SPLC, the most common falsehoods perpetrated by the Common Core conspiracy campaign include the beliefs that the federal government has created a mandatory curriculum for all schools meant to brainwash students with liberal, anti-Christian dogma; that adopting the Common Core standards means states forfeit local control over education to the federal government; and that the government and big businesses are scheming to track students’ personal information from kindergarten to adulthood through Common Core testing.
“Patriot,” Tea Party, other Christian-Right groups—from the small and grassroots to the Koch-affiliated— are dedicating significant amounts of time, money, and manpower to tearing down Common Core, using incendiary rhetoric.
“Public schools have indeed become the most dangerous places in America,” Anita Staver, president of the John Birch Society-affiliated Liberty Counsel wrote in the group’s August, 2013 newsletter. “We cannot stick our head in the sand while our children are held hostage in government indoctrination camps.”
In a letter to Catholic Bishops that was later re-printed in the Catholic magazine Crisis, Phyllis Schlafly, head of the conservative, “pro-family” Eagle Forum, slammed Common Core standards for “active promotion of gay marriage, and other federal efforts designed to dismantle society.” She declared, “We cannot remain complacent as this administration takes aim at our children.”
“Children are our righteous seed and Satan is after them,” televangelist and Columbus, Ohio megachurch pastor Rod Parsley wrote in the Christian magazine Charisma. “He has turned our public schools into cesspools of godless propaganda where God is publicly mocked and reviled. It is time to take a stand against the devil.”
While each of these claims may seem more ridiculous than the last, the SPLC report urges that they not be dismissed as the bluster of a few rogue nutjobs. Several popular and far-reaching members of the right-wing media are also getting in on the Common Core conspiracy mongering, disseminating these dramatic and unfounded theories into the mainstream.
In 2010, the SPLC says, right-wing talking head Glenn Beck sponsored two anti-Common Core strategizing conferences organized by self-taught (and widely discredited) evangelical historian David Barton. Since then, Beck has continued to take shots at Common Core on his online TV and radio shows at TheBlaze.com.
“It’s about to go federal,” Beck warned, inaccurately, in one video on his site. “This is top down education from the federal government, dictating to local schools what they must teach and how they must teach it.”
Prolific conservative columnist Michelle Malkin has called Common Core a “Trojan Horse,” and a “creepy federal data-mining racket” that supposedly forces school districts and state governments to “pimp out highly personal data on children’s feelings, beliefs, ‘biases,’ and ‘flexibility’ instead of doing their own jobs of imparting knowledge and minding their own business.”
Cal Thomas, one of the most widely syndicated columnists in the country, appears in more than 500 newspapers including USA Today, is aired on over 300 radio shows and is a Fox News commentator. He has been using these platforms to tell his large audience that “a mass exodus from government schools is the only way to preserve the souls and minds of children.”
Then, of course there’s IndoctriNation, a 2011 film financed by companies that make homeschooling materials, which poses as a documentary on the evils of public schools in America. The SPLC notes that notorious conspiracy theorist and talk radio host Alex Jones endorsed the movie and, in an episode of his radio show devoted to it, told parents, “You’re handing your kids over to a bunch of globalist scumbags” who worship the devil and plan to create a New World Order.
The SPLC suggests that the campaign against Common Core is growing in tandem with attacks against the public school system as a whole, with the Christian right using the current controversy as an excuse to reignite decades-old battles against evolution, school prayer, sex-ed and, more recently, efforts to stop LGBT bullying.
“From a historical perspective, the Common Core is just the latest bogeyman in a fierce propaganda and political war being waged against the very concept of providing a publicly funded, secular education to every child,” the report’s authors write.
In a very handy timeline of events, the SPLC illustrates how Christian Right opposition to public schools and the homeschooling movement have grown over the decades since 1948, when the Supreme Court first declared religious instruction in public schools unconstitutional. Six decades after Brown v. Board of Education led to racial integration in schools, minorities now comprise nearly half of all public school students—that’s nearly twice the percentage of 30 years ago and it’s growing. At the same time, public schools across the country are forming Gay-Straight Alliances and in 2013, California passed the nation’s first law protecting transgender students from discrimination at school.
As the federal government and the high court have continued to expand the right to public, discrimination-free education to more groups of students, the number of homeschooled students in the U.S. has climbed from about 750,000 in 1995 to between 1.9 million and 2.4 million in 2006.
The latest iteration of the Christian Right’s crusade against secular education is worth paying attention to because, with an identifiable villain like Common Core, groups with enough resources can wield real political and public influence to take down the program and, in effect, damage the public school system as a whole.
According to the SPLC, The American Principles Project, a group founded by leading Christian Right thinker and major LGBT equality opponent Robert George, says it’s spending $500,000 to fight the Common Core, releasing reports and videos on why the program is bad for America, sponsoring anti-Common Core conferences, and sending representatives to several state legislative hearings to testify against implementing the program.
More recognizable, however, are the advocacy groups associated with the conservative billionaire Koch brothers. According to a Politico report from January, the Koch-affiliated non-profit FreedomWorks, which is credited with giving birth to the Tea Party, is blatantly using opposition to Common Core to rally support for private and religious school vouchers and, eventually, to destroy the U.S. Department of Education altogether. Americans for Prosperity, another Koch-backed group, is pushing the anti-Common Core agenda at town hall meetings throughout the states.
David Koch’s history as a Libertarian politician offers some insight as to why arguably two of the country’s most influential political donors might be interested in this fight. He ran for vice president in 1980 on the Libertarian ticket, the year when his party’s platform reportedly called for “complete separation of education and State” and claimed that “Government schools lead to the indoctrination of children and interfere with the free choice of individuals. Government ownership, operation, regulation, and subsidy of schools and colleges should be ended.”’
As the SPLC points out, the vicious campaign against Common Core is already having an impact on politics at the federal level. Senator Rand Paul (R-Kentucky) and seven other senators have signed on to sponsor legislation to stop federal funding for any aspect of Common Core. U.S. Rep. Jim Bridenstine of Oklahoma has compared Common Core standards to socialism. And potential Republican presidential candidate Jeb Bush has come under fire from the far-right factions of his own party for supporting the program.
The SPLC report’s authors explain exactly how harmful destroying public education would be for the huge swath of the country that cannot afford to homeschool their children or send them to private schools. Without public schools, they write, the 48 percent of K-12 students that come from low-income families will have fewer pathways out of poverty. The 21 percent of students whose parents are immigrants will have less of a chance to assimilate. And children of color, estimated to makeup half of all American children within the next five years, “would be unprepared to make their way in modern society, crippling the economy and ruining chances of being globally competitive.” Essentially, dissolving public education would achieve the exact opposite of the idealistic goals stated by the Common Core Standards Initiative.
In her most recent book Reign of Error: The Hoax of the Privatization Movement and the Danger to America’s Public Schools, Diane Ravitch, one of the education field’s most outspoken opponents of Common Core, echoes the SPLC’s fears.
Public education “expanded opportunity to more people, distributed the benefits of knowledge to more people, and strengthened our nation,” Ravitch writes. “When public education is in danger, democracy is jeopardized. We cannot afford that risk.”