Groups ranging from the billionaire Koch Brothers on the right to elements of Occupy Wall Street on the left have found common ground against the Common Core Curriculum standards, the White House-backed initiative to bring 21st-century reforms to the American education system.
The push against Common Core features the usual antagonists of President Barack Obama, like Sens. Charles Grassley (R-Iowa) and Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.), who have accused the administration of strong-arming 45 states into accepting it. Conservative groups like the Republican National Committee and the Heritage Foundation -- which has dedicated an entire web page to criticizing it -- have joined the chorus of criticism.
The Common Core opposition, however, includes some traditional allies of the Obama administration, including parent-teacher organizations in a state that voted overwhelmingly for the president’s re-election, and the National Education Association (NEA), one of the country’s most powerful teachers’ unions.
“Common Core has become something of a Rorschach test,” says John Rogers, a professor and public education analyst at the UCLA Graduate School of Education and Information Studies. As a result, he says, “a very diverse political constituencies have been blended” to oppose it.
Although organizations like the Badass Teacher, an ad-hoc educators’ group, now stand with political machines like FreedomWorks -- a conservative and libertarian organization that poured money into the 2012 presidential election to try and defeat Obama -- their reasons for fighting Common Core depends on whom you ask.
Most traditional small-government conservatives say they like the idea of upgrading the education system, where educators have seen student test scores in smaller nations like Finland and South Korea soar while Americans’ have stagnated. But the Common Core opponents in their camp see the educational standards as another example of government overreach in violation of states’ rights.
Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.), considered a 2016 GOP presidential contender, spoke for this faction last summer, warning that the White House was attempting to “[turn] the Department of Education into what is effectively a national school board … Empowering parents, local communities and the individual states is the best approach.”
Rogers says Rubio’s argument echoes the 1950s-era debate about local control, which in southern states “was about race and maintaining Jim Crow. Pleas for local control today are about something else.”
School-choice voucher proponents, for example, along with home-schooling advocates, conservative Christian academies and parochial-education groups, sense the fight over Common Core can help them recruit disgruntled parents. Libertarians, like Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.), believe the conflict could build momentum for their pet cause: abolishing the federal Department of Education.
Conservative broadcaster Glenn Beck and his followers, meanwhile, also believe Common Core is a back-door means for the government to spy on citizens and indoctrinate children in what Beck called “an extreme liberal ideology.”
But FreedomWorks and other powerful conservative groups, like the Cato Institute, Americans for Prosperity and the Koch Brothers, have launched plans to stoke populist anger over Common Core and channel it into a national political force.
FreedomWorks has produced anti-Common Core videos as well as a political action plan, and has publicly stated it will mobilize supporters to pressure local officials on issues like private school vouchers, teacher unions and tenure. Their agenda also includes a jointly-sponsored, Beck-led rally in Washington later this year.
Like their allies on the right, liberals broadly agree that American students need to catch up with education leaders in the rest of the world. But in Common Core they see a rigid, one-size-fits-all approach, drafted in private, that ignores how teachers teach and how children learn.
Generally, liberals fear the curriculum, and the standardized evaluations, will amplify the high-pressure, high-stakes atmosphere that No Child Left Behind, President George W. Bush's education initiative, helped create. In already high-performing school districts in “blue states” like New York -- which Obama won by 26 points in 2012 -- some parents and teachers think a new set of standards will drag down test scores, undermining their children’s futures; others worry it will push classroom “electives” like music and art further to the sidelines.
Political ideology aside, however, perhaps the most vocal push-back to Common Core has come from teachers, who approve of the concept but hate its implementation. They complain the curriculum, created without teacher input, is inflexible, its installation has been disorganized, and administrators and parents will blame them if student test scores implode.
Rogers says that’s because Common Core backers didn’t seek “buy-in” from teachers, who see “rushing from one high-stakes test to another is the wrong approach.”
For example, the NEA, which endorsed Obama in 2012 and initially embraced Common Core, blasted the “completely botched” rollout. In a letter to the union’s 3 million members last week, NEA President Dennis Van Roekel declared the standards will fail without more input from teachers and a “major course correction.”
Opponents on the left also suspect that corporate textbook manufacturers like McGraw-Hill and the multibillion-dollar educational testing industry are the real forces behind the Common Core push. Anthony Cody, a former Oakland, Calif., teacher, co-founder of Network for Public Education and a blogger for Education Week, excoriated Microsoft founder Bill Gates - a chief supporter of the standards - for virtually creating “a national marketplace for [education and testing] products.”
“As an educator, I find this objectionable,” he wrote.
Others believe that the uniform approach does a disservice to areas that need a more tailored approach, such as low-population school districts, schools with big populations of non-native English speakers and kids that have educational challenges like autism or dyslexia.
Diane Ravitch, an influential ed reform advocate, has said she thinks Common Core as adopted will widen the divide between rich and poor school districts. That’s because educators in impoverished areas - already struggling to teach the basics in crumbling schools to kids who have relatively little support - now face another complex, untested, government-backed mandate.
“Maybe the standards will be great. Maybe they will be a disaster. Maybe they will improve achievement. Maybe they will widen the achievement gaps between haves and have-nots,” Ravitch wrote in an editorial published in the Washington Post. “Maybe they will cause the children who now struggle to give up altogether.”
That Common Core is an unproven curriculum created in private is its biggest liability, she continued: “Would the Federal Drug Administration approve the use of a drug with no trials, no concern for possible harm or unintended consequences?”