Education

Politics take center stage in Common Core controversy

 

Herald/Times Tallahassee Bureau

• What Common Core means for teachers and students, 1B

There were outraged parents, tea party stalwarts and a man in a Revolutionary War uniform.

“As far as I’m concerned, Common Core is the same as communism,” one attendee said at the Wednesday night meeting in Davie.

“Marxism!” someone shouted from the audience.

The three public hearings on the Common Core State Standards, held last week at the request of Gov. Rick Scott, were intended to let parents, educators and taxpayers in Florida express their opinions on the new national benchmarks for students. But many of their voices were drowned out by emotional outbursts and political jabs aimed at the federal government.

It has happened in other states, too.

A Common Core town hall meeting in Poughkeepsie, N.Y., became so rowdy that the state PTA canceled three other hearings scheduled for future dates. The Louisiana Board of Elementary and Secondary Education was also overwhelmed with Common Core critics, many of whom made political statements.

The hearings, some observers say, are evidence that the public debate on Common Core has drifted away from a discussion of standards.

“This issue has been completely politicized,” said Michael Petrilli, a Common Core supporter and executive vice president of the right-leaning Thomas B. Fordham Institute in Washington, D.C. “It has devolved into an argument between different political factions rather than an argument about education.”

The Common Core standards outline what skills children should master at each grade level. They do not dictate how those skills should be taught.

The benchmarks were developed by the National Governors Association, and have been approved in 44 states and the District of Columbia. Supporters say they encourage critical thinking, and will raise the bar for students across the country.

But the standards became a political flashpoint earlier this year, when tea party groups and libertarians denounced Common Core as a federal intrusion.

Scott, who was swept into office by the tea party in 2010, called for the public hearings last month.

Of the three town hall-style meetings, the one in Davie was the most heated — and the most vibrant. Randy Adams, of Weston, delivered his anti-Common Core remarks wearing a Revolutionary War uniform.

Other critics booed and shouted, and referred to the standards as “Obama Ed,” “Communist Core” and Marxism.

Opponents at the Tampa and Tallahassee meetings were more subdued, but shared strong sentiments with state Education Commissioner Pam Stewart.

“These standards are just another way for government to control the minds of people,” parent Carlos Ramirez said at the Tallahassee meeting.

Some grassroots parent groups, including Florida Parents Against Common Core and the Florida Stop Common Core Coalition, made it a point to invite education experts to the public hearings and discuss the standards themselves. At the Tampa meeting, University of Arkansas Education Professor Sandra Stotsky argued the new benchmarks would be no more rigorous than those currently being used.

Still, Suzette Lopez said she and other parents were frustrated by the volume of political comments.

Lopez, whose children attend Vineland K-8 Center in the Falls in South Miami-Dade, is against the Common Core because she believes the standards are neither challenging enough nor age-appropriate.

“There are many [parents] like me out there, and we are being drowned out by those that are more aggressively speaking out against Common Core,” Lopez wrote in an email. “Yes, politics are definitely involved, but I have chosen to focus on how it will affect children.”

There has been high drama in other states.

Parents assembled in the Poughkeepsie, N.Y., high school last week shouted at state Education Commissioner John King, and directed the discussion at his family.

“My kids are being required to fist pump ‘yes, yes, yes, yes’ like a little Nazi, while your children are enjoying and prospering in the freedom of a private Montessori school,” one woman yelled at the commissioner while pumping her fist into the air.

King quickly said his children were off limits, but added that the school he selected “embraces” the Common Core.

After the meeting, King released a statement blaming “special interests” for disrupting the meeting.

Former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush, addressing a national education summit he convened in Boston last week, said criticism and conspiracy theories were “easy attention grabbers.”

Bush, a strong supporter of the standards, challenged Common Core critics to suggest solutions.

“I understand there are those opposed to the standards,” he said. “But what I want to hear from them is more than just opposition. I want to hear their solutions for the hodgepodge of dumbed-down state standards that have created group mediocrity in our schools.”

Information from The Associated Press is included in this report. Kathleen McGrory can be reached at kmcgrory@MiamiHerald.com.

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