The 'Show' of Support for Common Core in Georgia

Earlier this week opponents of the “Common Core State Standards” cautiously celebrated their first major victory as Governor Mike Pence signed legislation withdrawing Indiana from the nationalized education program.

But in Georgia, the pro-Common Core big business/big government forces outgunned the grassroots and celebrated victory on the last day of the session last week.  A look at their tricks can provide lessons for other states.

Republican State Senator William Ligon was the sponsor of anti-Common Core legislation this year and last.  The 2013 version of his SB 167, which called for a complete withdrawal from Common Core, failed to get out of committee.  This year’s bill, revised multiple times, also failed to get out of the education committee.  Parts of the bill attached as two amendments to another education bill did not get approval on the last day of the session (with some supporters switching their votes).

On the side fighting Common Core and trying to enact legislation that would withdraw Georgia from the national education standards were tea party groups, alarmed parents and grandparents, dissenting teachers, and such groups as Concerned Women for America and American Principles in Action.

But even Democratic teachers and parents who oppose Common Core would not be able to fight the pro-Common Core rent-seekers -- lobbyists, the Chamber of Commerce, principals, teachers, superintendents, and public radio and television employees.

The only thing that passed was a resolution to form a study committee on Common Core.  But even this was too much for Georgia Democratic State Representative Alisha Thompson Morgan, now running for state school superintendent.  In February, Morgan had introduced a House Resolution affirming Georgia’s commitment to Common Core.

To even discuss Common Core in a study committee was crazy talk, she implied in her speech against the measure in the waning hours on the last day.  For evidence, she noted, “I’ve heard all kinds of things, like let’s abolish the U.S. Department of Education.”  To Morgan, the federal Department of Education protects students: “It’s the federal government’s job to ensure that we don’t violate the rights of students.”

She listed the benefits bestowed by the U.S. Department of Education: the $400 million in stimulus funds in exchange for agreement to the Common Core standards, innovation grants, and data-tracking from “preschool to Ph.D.” Morgan insisted this was not a Democratic or Republican issue.  She was speaking as “a mom” of a first-grader, and she was hearing great things from her teacher about Common Core -- like developing “critical thinking skills.”

“Why are we still having this conversation?” Morgan asked.  No further discussion should be allowed: a March 5 education committee hearing on Ligon’s bill had 68 people testifying, with the vast majority, 58, opposing Ligon’s bill.

“I don’t ever remember so many people testifying,” she said: “It was the first time I recall groups like the Chamber of Commerce and Coalition of 100 Black Men joining together.”

Plus, she had been overwhelmed by emails and other communication from teachers, parents, and citizens pleading to keep Common Core, a claim she repeated from what she had said at the education committee hearings on March 5 and March 12.  These Common Core fans, Morgan said, spoke up at “listening sessions” held across the state in the months leading up to the start of the session in January.  They greatly outnumbered those who spoke against it -- proof that the public supported Common Core.

In spite of Morgan’s arguments, the resolution for a study committee on Common Core passed, but it was the only -- and largely symbolic -- state level effort against Common Core this year.

Representative Morgan’s characterization of the groundswell of support for Common Core, however, does not fit with what documents obtained from an open records request reveal.  Those testifying against Ligon’s bill were largely members of the Chamber of Commerce -- and public school employees: teachers, principals, superintendents, and administrators.  By my own count, 12 of them came from Tift County, 181 miles to the south of Atlanta, and they used school buses to get there.

They had apparently also used school buses to travel to the “listening sessions” across the state.  These were sham forums and used to present a show of openness on the issue.  In reality, the establishment, from Republican Governor Nathan Deal to the Education Committee chairman, Brooks Coleman (also a Republican), had made their decisions that Common Core was going to stay.  After the testimony of Tift County principal Mickey Weldon at the March 5 education committee hearing, Chairman Brooks Coleman thanked her and those who have been arranging the bus trips: “They bring those buses, and we appreciate them.”

Five days previously, a mass email from Tift County Schools Superintendent Patrick Atwater to “principals” and others had gone out.  Dated Friday, February 28, 2014, it was titled “SB 167” and rated “high” in “importance.”  It read,

We have just finished a conference call with Representative Alisha Morgan.  Tift County has a seat at the table for Wednesday’s House Education Committee.  We are sending at least five staff to present and have begun to organize other counties to ride a bus with us.  Already, two other systems have agreed.  If you would like to go, please let me know and we will hold a seat on the bus for you.

Principals are invited!

This is a somewhat different account from what Representative Morgan has been presenting.  The Tift County school superintendent was strongly encouraging other employees to attend -- and on a school day, during working hours.   A log shows payment for bus drivers for this and other trips.

Employees could please the superintendent by attending and testifying in favor of Common Core -- as they had done in previous months.  Furthermore, they were instructed on what to say as another correspondence will reveal.

So the groundswell of spontaneous support coming from teachers -- as Morgan has presented it -- is not accurate.  Obviously, teachers who dislike Common Core would fear for their jobs, especially in a district where there is pressure, or at least strong encouragement from higher-ups, to testify in favor of it.

Media outlets used the well-orchestrated shows of support at hearings and listening sessions as evidence of overwhelming support for Common Core by the business community and “education establishment.”

Citizens and tea party groups, however, did not “have a seat at the table,” or benefit from being on a payroll while lobbying.  They were concerned about the unconstitutional overreach of the federal government, and about children and grandchildren who would not be able to escape a national education program designed by special interest groups, and far-left academics.  But the media simply repeated the characterization of Common Core opponents as wearing “tin foil hats.”

What is the lesson learned?  Fighting an entire federal bureaucracy is hard.

Common Core will, among other things, strengthen and grow that bureaucracy, and solidify business/educational establishment ties, and federal-state apron strings.

Common Core is the latest in efforts to make states dependent on the federal government for direction and funding of education.  Federal money comes with strings attached, and affects how employees of state education departments see themselves.  One Georgia Department of Education Title I specialist, at the Family Engagement Conference held in Athens, Georgia, in January, admitted, “We are essentially federal employees.”  That was the sense I got at this conference.  (As will also be revealed, state school employees were also encouraged by higher ups to advocate for more government funding.)

In Common Core, big business sees benefits from data-collection, curriculum development and new electronic delivery devices (such as student-ready computer tablets), assessment development and administration, and computer software and hardware upgrades for mandatory federally administered tests.

How to Break the Stranglehold

The liberal media and Chamber of Commerce-affiliated sites smeared Common Core opponents and ignored the scholarly critiques of Common Core.

At hearings, Senator Ligon was challenged by a state representative with inappropriate questions about specific standards.  Not surprisingly, those who ask the questions cannot answer them -- even though they pride themselves on being educators. The media used the set-up to present Ligon as uninformed about his own legislation.

The use of taxpayer-supported Public Broadcasting (with their radio stations operated by the Atlanta public school system) to advocate and report on Common Core is of concern.  Georgia Public Broadcasting trained teachers in Common Core, produced curriculum materials, and hosted one-sided conferences and roundtable discussions on Common Core.

Pro-Common Core workshops by Chamber of Commerce-affiliated groups were offered to public school employees and parent volunteers at at least one event essentially supported by taxpayers.

These aspects will be investigated in forthcoming articles.  The battle over Common Core is not over.  Given the entrenched nature of the education bureaucracy, it is to the credit of the grassroots that Common Core has gained so much attention -- and has made the bureaucrats fight so hard.  They are, after all, used to implementing policies and spending money behind the scenes.

Still, the grassroots are outgunned.  They need to know that the enemy fire is coming from multiple directions.  The sources will be explored in forthcoming articles.