Jefferson City—With the financial support of wealthy conservative campaign donors and Washington think tanks, a small but growing revolt is developing against Missouri’s public schools.
The battle is over a new set of higher standards for math, science, English, and history known as Common Core. The standards grew out of the National Governors Conference and have been adopted by 45 states, including Missouri and Illinois. They appear to have bi-partisan support among most governors and state legislative leaders.
More than 70 percent of Missouri’s school districts have adopted the standards and are expecting to start implementing them later this year. Its also been widely adopted in Illinois.
The goal is to raise standards high enough so that every high school graduate will be capable of either getting a job or going to college. Only about half of the country’s graduates can do that now.
The development and implementation of the Common Core standards are being paid for through a $175 million grant from the Gates Foundation and millions more from the federal government.
President Obama is an enthusiastic supporter. He is counting on the standards to help young Americans become as well educated as their counterparts in other countries. That is expected to enable United States businesses to compete better in the global economy.
Today, business leaders say, there is a serious education gap between the jobs that are available and people to fill them. That is especially true in fields requiring science, technology, engineering and math.
BROAD SUPPORT AMONG EDUCATORS
For the most part, teachers, principals and superintendents appear enthused about the standards. There is broad support from the business community and the AFL-CIO, including teachers unions that continue their support while warning that a slower approach is desirable for teacher training and curriculum flexibility, especially for pre-school children.
Mary Armstrong, president of Teachers Local 420 in St. Louis, said her union was concerned after the state adopted the standards in 2010. Teachers feared the state might encourage school districts to move ahead quickly with the program, as some other states have. But the state addressed those concerns, she said. The program deserves monitoring closely to see to it that teachers get proper training.
“We support the goals. Some of our teachers are getting the proper training. But some of them have not yet,” Armstrong said. “We will continue to press for that.”
While not opposed to testing for results, teachers believe testing their students and their school districts, without proper preparation, would not produce the results expected by the program’s supporters, especially the business community and parents who are expecting the program to produce better educated young men and women.
That could undermine public support for the standards and tarnish the reputation of public education even further than it already has been by its failure to do a better job of educating millions of children each year who either drop out or are graduated without the skills to get a job or advance to college or technical training.
The result is not just a shortage of capable employees for the business community, but higher crime rates and welfare rolls that in many cases lead to generation after generation of poverty.
COMMON CORE OPPONENTS
Opposition to public schools is not new.
Home schoolers and charter school advocates have been around for at least a generation. But the Common Core program is creating new opponents, much of it fueled by some of the same wealthy financiers whose money paid for the Tea Party uprising against Obamacare in 2009 and 2010 that led to a far-right tilt in Congress.
Politico, the influential Washington magazine and on-line news service, reported last month that the billionaire Koch Brothers and other wealthy conservative donors, including Rex Sinquefield’s Show Me Institute in St. Louis, were pouring millions of dollars into anti-Common Core campaigns in several states.
They see the Common Core issue as a vehicle to get the federal government out of education, to demonize public schools and destroy teacher unions to make it easier to divert public school money into charter and private schools.
The Alliance Against Common Core in Missouri, whose membership includes more than 20 influential conservative organizations, has scheduled a rally at the State Capitol on Feb. 18, where they intend to button-hole Republicans who control the House and Senate to refuse any funding for the Common Core program.
State Sen. John Lamping (R-Ladue) is an ardent opponent of Common Core standards. He believes the state adopted the standards without a serious review of their complexity and mainly because there was several million dollars in federal money available to the education department for accepting them.
He claims few parents understand the standards and criticizes the education department for not doing a better job of helping local school districts and parents understand their complexity and cost.
But bills he has introduced both last year and this year to prohibit Common Core standards, or at least slow them down, have found little support among his Republican colleagues. His bill last year calling for public hearings didn’t get out of committee. This year, he doesn’t expect a hearing until later in the session, too late to pass.
PARKWAY SCHOOL DISTRICT
Supporters of Common Core in school districts throughout the St. Louis region, including The Parkway School District in his own senate district, challenge Lamping’s opinions.
Parkway and the other districts have set up informational websites for parents, administrators and teachers, and conducted outreach to parent-teacher meetings.
Kevin Buckner is in charge of the outreach program at Parkway. He says there has been some confusion about Common Core standards, but its closer to curiosity than opposition; although he acknowledges there are opponents.
But, he says, “If half of what I hear about Common Core was true, I’d be against it too. But about 90 percent of it is not true. “
His experience is similar to other teachers and administrators who discussed the Common Core program with the Labor Tribune.
Roger Kurtz, executive director of the Missouri Association of School Administrators, says opponents have shown up at several school board meetings around the state, mainly in the Springfield area. He does not believe there is a popular groundswell of opposition.
“We have spent an incredible amount of time working on these standards, trying to help school districts get them started. “ That includes correcting much of the misinformation that opponents show up with.
He is convinced they can help Missouri students reach higher levels of critical thinking and aptitude for higher learning beyond high school.
Mark Jones, political director of the 35,000 member Missouri National Education Association, says the NEA has had similar experiences with state lawmakers who have expressed concern about the standards.
“We have made a concerted effort to talk to every member of the legislature to answer their questions and inform them as accurately as we can.” He believes the effort is paying off. So far, he believes, there is little interest among lawmakers in scuttling the program.
OPPONENTS ON THE LEFT
Opponents of Common Core are found on the left as well.
The New York State United Teachers Association recently withdrew its support for Common Core because the program was being implemented too quickly. Students, teachers and school districts were being tested without enough time to prepare for the higher standard testing.
Randi Weingarten, the President of the American Federation of Teachers, supports Common Core goals. But she has consistently warned that if the testing of the new standards starts too soon, the entire program will fail.
Others on the left, including a score or more of academic critics, have raised similar issues. But their opposition is miniscule, compared to the assault coming from the right.
A major test for Common Core in Missouri will come later this year when Republican leaders in the House and Senate hammer out the state’s budget. Governor Nixon has asked for nearly a $300 million increase in aid to public schools. A small, (probably less than $10 million) part of that budget would go to help local school districts support Common Core implementation.
Meanwhile, a proposed constitutional amendment is expected to be on the state ballot next November that would repeal Missouri’s constitutional prohibition of public funds being diverted to private schools.
If it passes, it would grant a 50 percent tax credit to parents who send their children to charter, religious and private schools. That would mean wealthy parents with kids at the prestigious prep schools, John Boroughs and Mary Institute-Country Day, where tuition and other expenses exceed $25,000 a year, could get half of it paid by taxpayers.