By Ryan Ekvall | Wisconsin Reporter
MADISON — An unlikely alliance of progressives and tea party activists have found common ground in opposing Common Core State Standards in Wisconsin — even as the political elite on both sides support the new standards that are quickly spreading through schools.
Standing in the hallway that separates Assembly Majority Leader Robin Vos, R-Rochester from Minority Leader Peter Barca, D-Kenosha, two progressives and two tea party activists recently discussed leading the outside-the-Capitol charge against Common Core.
“What makes this not a left-right issue, what brings us together on this issue is that we care about our communities and our kids,” said Tim Slekar, dean of the School of Education at Edgewood College in Madison. “I’m no longer left or right, I’m a parent who’s doing what’s best for my kid.”
Slekar co-founded United Opt-Out National, an organization opposed to high stakes testing.
The Common Core is a set of national education standards meant to prepare students for “college and career readiness.” Proponents say the standards are “rigorous” and will help U.S. students compete internationally in the 21st century.
Opponents on the right say the standards represent a national takeover of education replete with intrusive student data tracking. Those on the left say high stakes testing dehumanize children and de-professionalize teachers. Both are wary of corporate interests that stand to rake in hundreds of millions of dollars from Common Core. They say better standards already exist elsewhere.
“Frequently there is a lot more common ground between people on the right and left than we recognize,” said Kirsten Lombard, organizer for the Wisconsin 9/12 Project, a tea party organization. “If we’re pointing fingers at each other and squabbling among ourselves, then we’re not noticing what they’re doing to all of us.”
Several dozen tea party groups have co-signed letters and organized phone call campaigns to state lawmakers asking for a pause on Common Core. They thought they had secured a foot in the door when a budget motion requested, but didn’t require public hearings and a legislative study of the new standards.
“The first thing we want to do is to get those hearings scheduled and raise the awareness with the public and our legislators about this issue,” said Jeffrey Horn, organizer of the Prairie Patriots, one of the dozens of loosely affiliated tea party groups that have tried to find Capitol support.
Public awareness is lacking. An August 2013 Phi Delta Kappa/Gallup poll found that 62 percent of Americans and 55 percent of public school parents said they’d never heard of Common Core. Just four in 10 who had heard of Common Core said the standards would make American students more competitive internationally.
More than three in four (78 percent) Americans said increased testing doesn’t lead to better results. Yet in Wisconsin, the Department of Public Instruction, led by a Democrat, will double down on multiple, high stakes assessments for kids in 3rd grade through junior year.
“We are creating a culture where teachers are teaching to the tests,” said Jed Hopkins, an education professor at Edgewood College. ”That means that teachers won’t take pedagogical risks. Taking risks are a very important part of doing the job well.”
“It’s increasingly clear that the tail of the tests wags the dog as the teacher,” Michael Apple, an expert in curriculum and instruction, and educational policy at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, told Wisconsin Reporter. “Increasingly, when I talk to teachers they feel they’re losing their autonomy and that some of this makes it very difficult for them to deal creatively with a student population that is much more diverse than it’s been in many years.”
Apple said the politics of Common Core have become muddled with the bright lights pointed at public schools and teacher unions as the GOP has tried to buoy public support for school reform — including vouchers, charter schools and “school accountability.”
“No Child Left Behind basically was a de facto Common Core. It said it’s up to the states to develop strategies to get 100 percent of kids above grade level by 2014,” he said. “Democrats who were not in love with NCLB are now — especially at the federal level — the ones who want Core standards.”
Democrats supported No Child Left Behind before they were against it. The late Sen. Edward Kennedy, a Massachusetts Democrat, co-authored the bill with current House Speaker John Boehner, an Ohio Republican. More Republicans than Democrats voted against it. In 2007, Democratic presidential hopefuls made NCLB reauthorization an issue to set them apart from Republicans, the majority of whom still supported the law.
Those tables have now been turned.
While many Republicans, especially in Wisconsin, still support the standards, the Republican National Committee passed an anti-Common Core resolution earlier this year calling the standards “an inappropriate overreach to standardize and control the education of our children.”
The national standards are sometimes referred to as ObamaCore by the tea party right, associating the educational standards with the health care overhaul hated by conservatives.
Progressives have mounted only sporadic campaigns against Common Core. Their most recognizable spokesperson is Diane Ravitch, a New York University professor and educational historian who worked in both Republican and Democratic White Houses.
In Florida, the Democratic Progressive Caucus and the Badass Teachers Association recently joined tea party activists to oppose Common Core in the Sunshine State. But Republicans there, for the most part, like the new standards.
Karen Schroeder, president of Advocates for Academic Freedom, wrote to DPI asking if individual school boards in Wisconsin, a state with local control of education, could dump Common Core.
“I received the following response from Emilie Amundsen, director of the Common Core State Standards Team at DPI:
“Yes. In Wisconsin, each school board has the statutory authority to adopt the state standards or any other set of standards, inferior or superior … School districts must have standards. The type, quality and scope of those standards are left to local school boards to decide. This has always been the case in Wisconsin, and this has not changed as a result of Wisconsin adopting Common Core state standards.”
Schroeder advocates citizens packing school board meetings and persuading locally elected officials to ditch Common Core, along with the textbooks and tests that go with them.
Such consensus is all the more interesting in a state where a third of Wisconsinites have said they stopped talking to someone they knew because of the politics leading up to the recall election of Gov. Scott Walker last year. It’s not a stretch to say Wisconsin is one of the most politically divided states in a politically divided country. Pollsters certainly have.
For this alliance of the left and the right, Common Core is the common enemy.
“Nothing about the Common Core has to do with the welfare of kids. It has everything to do with profits, making money, separating, sorting, categorizing kids and continuing to make more money,” Slekar said.
Contact Ryan Ekvall at firstname.lastname@example.org or find him on Twitter @Nockian.