The Oklahoma Common Core Four

by Joel Gehrke
How a group of motivated mothers navigated a political swamp and repealed Common Core.

How’s this for an in-kind contribution: “One time when we were in Canton, Okla., speaking to the PTO moms, they gave us a basket of homemade bread and jams and all kinds of stuff!” Jenni White, the leading activist calling for the repeal of Common Core in Oklahoma, told National Review Online. “We were in heaven!”

White has spent the past four years telling Parent Teacher Organizations and anyone else who would listen that Oklahoma should not implement Common Core, the education standards that most of the country adopted in 2010.

She hasn’t been working alone. “Our organization is made up of a board that just consists of four of us moms basically,” White says, referring to her cohorts Julia Seay, Lynn Habluetzel, and Joy Collins. “We have bankrolled the whole thing out of our poor husbands’ bank accounts.”

Ask anyone in Oklahoma politics who they think led the successful fight to repeal Common Core — Governor Mary Fallin signed the repeal into law on June 5 — and they’ll tell you that the story starts with this foursome. White served as the writer and spokeswoman for the group, which operates under the auspices of their LLC, Restore Oklahoma’s Public Education (ROPE). Together, the women have spent the past four years talking to Republican-party leaders, attending conservative conferences, and lobbying state legislators. Most of all, though, they cultivated a grassroots political movement against Common Core that overcame a bipartisan coalition ranging from the Department of Education to the Chamber of Commerce. By May 2014, a poll conducted on behalf of a Republican candidate showed that 57 percent of likely primary voters held an unfavorable view of the standards while only 9 percent had a favorable view.

In short, the four moms fought the proverbial city hall and won. “Look at Eric Cantor, seriously,” White suggested. “Some guy who had $300,000 beat him. You don’t think that kind of thing is possible when people have had enough?”

Like the immigration issue that contributed to the House majority leader’s loss last week, Common Core finds favor among political elites on both sides of the aisle and gets little affection from the conservative GOP base. White’s analogy to Cantor’s surprising defeat is also apt because the backlash against Common Core grew while the political class had its attention elsewhere.

White regards Common Core as the Obamacare of the Education Department. “They’ve nationalized health care; they’re nationalizing education,” she says. “You don’t want to be in a country where your government is telling your kids what they need to learn.”

Education runs in White’s family. Her grandfather was a law professor, her father is a professor at the University of Oklahoma, her mother was a teacher, and she worked at a charter school with Janet Barresi (the eventual state superintendent of public instruction) before leaving to raise and homeschool her own children.

A lifelong Republican voter, White turned her attention toward activism after the election of Barack Obama. She joined the Oklahoma City chapter of Glenn Beck’s 9/12 Project, serving as the group’s education coordinator, and started researching the civics requirements for public-school students.

She describes what motivated her efforts: “I wondered, How in the world is it that the United States of America elects a celebrated Marxist as president of the greatest country in the world?” She made a push to have the state legislature mandate the instruction of America’s founding political documents. This effort failed, but it led White to discover Common Core.

The National Governors Association and the Council of Chief State School Officers are the official leaders of the Common Core initiative, which allows proponents of the standards to describe them as a “state based” cure for failing public schools. The history of the initiative, however, gives activists such as White plenty of reason to view it as a top-down reform run by liberal activists and the federal government. Bill Gates bankrolled the operation through his charitable foundation, providing $200 million to organizations and think tanks on the left and the right. Perhaps not surprisingly, then, the new standards have the support of political blue bloods from President Obama to Jeb Bush.

Gates gave the Chicago Public Schools $20 million while Arne Duncan, Obama’s current education secretary, served as Chicago’s superintendent; once in federal government, Duncan populated his leadership team with Gates Foundation alumni.

As Gates worked the outside game by funding research and union groups, the Education Department used $4.3 billion from Obama’s 2009 stimulus to encourage states to adopt the standards. Known as Race to the Top, the stimulus program awarded grant money to states that improved their education standards. The administration made it clear that states that adopted the as-yet-unwritten Common Core would have a better chance of receiving the education grants. And the program did so “even though Federal Law prohibits the federalizing of curriculum,” as the Republican National Committee recalled in a resolution denouncing Common Core last year.

And so, under Democratic governor Brad Henry, a cash-strapped Oklahoma legislature subscribed to the Common Core initiative as part of a deal to pass a teacher-evaluation process.

“These guys [supporting Common Core] thought, Were smart, weve got money, we know better, these people wont even get it, theyll just be so happy that we said, Look, your kids can be smarter, and theyll just go with it,” White said. “I don’t think they counted on people understanding that this was a nationalization of education, that you were taking power away from us, not giving it. And that is really what has caused a movement on this issue all across the United States.”

State senator Josh Brecheen was not in office when the adoption of Common Core passed in 2010, but he led the repeal fight in that chamber this spring. A rancher by trade, he compared the states that scrambled for federal funding to the feral hogs he has to bait and trap. “You get them dependent on a free handout long enough, and you can get them in that live trap,” Brecheen told NRO. “What’s happened to states is the same thing as what you would see in that scenario. We’ve been baited, and we’ve surrendered our freedom because of a free handout. And I think Oklahomans became aware of that, and that’s why we’ve had success this session.”

Oklahoma didn’t end up getting any Race to the Top funding, but the adoption of the standards proved helpful in winning a waiver from No Child Left Behind, President George W. Bush’s signature attempt to mandate better education policies.

While luring the states to adopt Common Core standards through the hope of Race to the Top grants, the Education Department also paid for groups in two states to develop the model tests that schools can use to measure whether their students are meeting the standards set by Common Core.

“The federal government [paid] for the assessments — now the assessments are going to be driven by the federal government,” Brecheen says. “The state departments of education and your state legislators — they’ve lost total control over education, over their standards and assessments.”

Although the Gates-Obama team spread money around to states, private groups, and policy experts, someone forgot to bring parents on board. “The movement grew so quickly and with so little public notice that opposition was initially almost nonexistent,” wrote the Washington Post in an article headlined “How Bill Gates Pulled Off the Swift Common Core Revolution.”

Jenni White and her merry band of mothers decided it was time for a little visible opposition. In a textbook rollout of a retail political campaign, they started a repeal–Common Core movement in Oklahoma.

“It was mainly social-media-driven, outside of us going to various places all around the state,” she recalls. “We started creating memes before memes really took off.” Joy Collins provided a lot of the creative spark for that operation, while Habluetzel and Seay focused on researching Common Core and handling the organizational logistics of grassroots events, in addition to visiting the state capitol to give handouts to legislators.

The group’s biggest expense was gasoline to travel around the state for town-hall meetings. “Just gas alone has nearly killed us!” White told me. “If people asked us to speak, we came. We’ve never taken a speaker’s fee, but we were always happy if we got gas money, and sometimes we did.”

They met with county Republican groups and tea-party organizations but found especially willing supporters among homeschoolers in the state. That might seem unusual, since homeschooled kids don’t attend the public schools that would be governed by Common Core, but their involvement points to one result of combining model national standards with model national tests: The companies that write curricula modify their products to comply with Common Core.

“The options for homeschoolers have been greatly reduced,” Brecheen says. “Ultimately, Common Core is a national market for services in education. It’s a national marketplace. . . . When 45 states do one thing, then you no longer have experimentation with anything else.”

For White and Brecheen, that monopoly-market phenomenon undermines the case of such Common Core advocates as the Thomas B. Fordham Institute’s Kathleen Porter-Magee, who wrote: “I’ve long argued that standards are not curriculum (they aren’t) and that curriculum decisions are made by local schools and districts (they are).” White’s group was not persuaded.

Jim Stergios, executive director of the Massachusetts-based Pioneer Institute, helped the Oklahoma moms in their repeal effort. “These are curricula-driving tests,” he told NRO. Stergios’s institute provided White and company with expert testimony on Common Core throughout the repeal fight in the state legislature, and he notes that many states have also adopted teacher-evaluation systems derived, at least in part, from Common Core. “So let’s say you want to go beyond those standards, and you say, ‘I want to teach more literature, I want to teach Greek myth.’ There is absolutely no benefit. In fact, there is a penalty if the kids don’t do well on all the rest of the stuff that’s there. You will be seen as an ineffective teacher, your school will be seen as ineffective, and you will face some sort of accountability measure.”

Common Core standards exceed current standards in some states, fall short in others, and are broadly comparable to most, according to Stergios. The Thomas B. Fordham Institute, which supports the core standards, rated Oklahoma’s previous standards as nearly equivalent to the new measures in 2010. Oklahoma and Common Core both received a B+ for English and language arts; in mathematics, they received a B+ and A-, respectively.

Stergios has a lower view of Common Core, which he regards as a “political document” born out of compromise. “Because the Common Core standards are a compromise document, they aim too low — in essence the mediocre level of the midpoint in American education,” he says. “They are often incoherent, and they are packed with some hare-brained ideas about what is developmentally appropriate.” As an illustration, he describes the Core standard set for first-grade math students. “In first grade, kids are asked to ‘relate their chosen [response] strategy’ to written form,” he said. “It’s simply not grade-appropriate to ask first graders to explain in words what and why they have chosen one method over another. Perhaps later in elementary school that is possible, but certainly not in first grade.”

Brecheen, White, and other Oklahoma opponents of Common Core also dislike the humanities standards. The Osage County Republican chairman sent every Oklahoma senator a copy of The Story Killers, by Hillsdale College professor Terrence O. Moore. The book contained examples of classroom instruction derived from Common Core–aligned teacher editions of high-school curricula. Moore describes one such sample lesson on the collapse of the Soviet Union: It emphasized Mikhail Gorbachev’s role while downplaying Ronald Reagan’s and entirely ignoring Reagan’s “Tear down this wall” speech at the Brandenburg Gate. Story Killers helped convince Brecheen that Common Core would inculcate in students a bias in favor of leftist political philosophy.

“Teacher editions are a script for a lot of novice teachers,” Brecheen says. “If you can indoctrinate your children through the kind of education that they receive, which we believe Common Core is leading toward, then we’re going to march America into a greater enslavement of liberal viewpoints.”

Oklahoma’s Governor Fallin leads the Republican wing of the National Governors Association, which touts Common Core as a necessary step to producing “college- and career-ready” students. Fallin’s alignment with the NGA made it especially difficult for White and the other moms to rally opposition to the standards. “We have never, ever, ever, ever been granted an audience with our governor, not a single time,” White says. “She has never one time granted us time. . . . And don’t think we haven’t asked over four years.”

In explaining why the governor never met with White and her friends, Fallin’s communications director, Alex Weintz, notes that the governor has a very full schedule and that she had already had meetings with opponents of Common Core. “Part of it was, it was very clear what [White’s] view was on this issue,” Weintz told NRO. “I know what Jenni White thinks about Common Core, and I’ve read extensive materials from Jenni White online and in the paper, so we know where she stands.”

Two education-policy developments gave White and company a boost in 2014. First, school districts started using the Common Core–aligned math curricula (the ones that so frustrated comedian Louis C.K., who is not known as a Christian conservative or a tea-party activist). Second, the Reading Sufficiency Act, which was a law passed as part of Oklahoma’s request for a No Child Left Behind waiver, took effect. This law required third-grade students to pass a reading test in order to advance to fourth grade.

“You had parents get involved like I had never seen parents get involved in three years,” White said. “They were calling us, writing us on our Facebook page: ‘What can we do about this, my kid is scared to death, what can I do, help me.’” The reading test wasn’t part of Common Core, but it was easy for White to underscore that if parents didn’t like this test, they would hate the Common Core standards. At a minimum, the Reading Sufficiency Act demonstrated to parents the influence of Obama’s Education Department on Oklahoma classrooms, given that the state promised to administer the test when it asked for a waiver from No Child Left Behind.

“And once we were able to educate them as to what they needed to do to stand up for themselves, they really started flooding their representatives with e-mails and phone calls and all of that — just because of what they were seeing [after] coming home, sitting at their kitchen table,” White says.

The Republican-party apparatus also joined White’s cause eventually, even though it put them on the wrong side of some of their elected officials, such as Fallin.

“I remember talking to [White] a couple years ago, and she was explaining it to me,” Carolyn McLarty, Oklahoma’s Republican national committeewoman, told NRO. McLarty used her position as chairwoman of the RNC resolutions committee to spearhead the writing of a resolution against Common Core that the national GOP passed in April 2013. In January of 2014, the Oklahoma Republican party passed its own “resolution to protect Oklahoma’s education system.”

“So we’ve had that to use to say, ‘Hey, even if the Governors Association is for this, the Republican party is not,’” McLarty says. “We were pretty clear that the Republican party is against Common Core.”

Armed with the GOP resolutions, the Oklahoma activists could tell state lawmakers who supported the new standards that they were at odds with both their conservative base and their party’s professional political machine.

White persuaded isolated lawmakers to offer anti–Common Core legislation in every legislative year since 2011, but the legislative fight against the standards achieved a major breakthrough in May of 2013. One month after the RNC resolution against the standards, T. W. Shannon, who then was speaker of the House, denounced Common Core as a “federal intrusion into our education system.” Shannon had met with White in the winter of 2012 and found her arguments persuasive.

“It started to get out into the media, because T. W. was kind of a media guy, and I think that’s where it started — getting a bill there when he was speaker of the House,” White says.

Not all of that attention was positive. The Tulsa World editorialized, “Unfortunately, Shannon . . . bought into a misinformation campaign against Common Core that sprung up out of state.” The media attention nonetheless helped activists raise awareness of the issue with mainstream voters.

Despite his work to raise awareness about the Common Core issue in 2013, Shannon hasn’t won the unalloyed respect of the pro-repeal activists, which might emerge as a problem for him in his bid to replace retiring Republican senator Tom Coburn. White emphasizes that she likes Shannon personally but faults him for refusing to allow a vote on a bill written by state representative Gus Blackwell in the fall of 2013 that would have set up a task force to study the costs of Common Core. White believed at the time that Shannon had blocked the bill at the request of Governor Fallin.

“He’s an empty-suit opportunist,” White concludes about Shannon. “He’s going to pick his moments where he feels he can say something, but last year he did nothing to forward [that] bill.” She’s sharing this message with the repeal activists. “While I absolutely appreciate the efforts on T. W.’s part to change the discussion on Common Core, I’m not ready to send T. W. to Washington, D.C.,” White wrote in a June 17 blog post.

Shannon’s top rival in the Senate race, Representative James Lankford, was more consistently helpful in the Common Core fight, according to the activists. They have a separate set of problems with him, though.

“In this fight, James has been helpful,” White said. “Not so much in controlling the debt.”

Blackwell, a state-house ally of Shannon’s, says that he and the speaker agreed that it would be best not to pass the task-force bill. Shannon had acceded, Blackwell said, to Fallin’s request not to hear any Common Core bills that session.

Instead, Shannon offered a compromise: Blackwell could conduct an interim study on Common Core costs. Unlike the proposed task-force legislation, the interim study could be conducted without the support of the senate and Governor Fallin. Shannon allotted Blackwell five days to conduct the study, an unprecedented amount of time for such studies; they normally last, Blackwell says, just a couple of hours.

“[Shannon] did not stop me from doing what I wanted,” Blackwell told NRO. “I knew that this was a much better deal, and, with his backing, I’d be able to get a lot more accomplished, which I did.”

Shannon’s team says that he wanted to wait until an election year to pass a bill into the senate, which had long been a graveyard for anti–Common Core legislation.

The interim study helped White and her allies generate even more opposition to the standards throughout the fall. Carolyn McLarty tried to persuade Fallin to abandon her support for Common Core.

“I talked to her first back in December last year about it and tried to explain how the grassroots were rising up and that she needed to be on the right side of this thing,” McLarty said. Instead of taking McLarty’s advice, the governor issued an executive order stating that Common Core standards used in Oklahoma must “be clearly identified with the title of Oklahoma Academic Standards.” The order also emphasized that “the federal government shall not have any input” in the formulation of the standards and that the state government would “aggressively oppose” any federal effort “to force the state to adopt standards that do not reflect Oklahoma values.”

That rebranding effort failed to mollify the repeal activists. The perfect storm for repealing Common Core arrived shortly thereafter, in 2014. For starters, Fallin now has a pro-life, pro-gun Democratic challenger, state representative Joe Dorman, who opposes the standards. “In fact, if it weren’t for his desire to spend other people’s money, we’d have the perfect candidate against Fallin!” White suggested.

In February of the spring 2014 legislative session, White and her network planned a rally at the state senate in favor of several anti–Common Core bills pending in the house. The Senate Education Committee had refused to give house bills on the subject a hearing in previous sessions, and White’s group gathered to protest.

It’s a testament to the divergence between the elite political class and the base that the activists organized in secret. “This was all done simply via word of mouth — off the social-media radar — in order to keep it out of the public eye,” White recalls. “We were afraid the senate would move meetings to get away from crowds.”

Senator Brecheen — one of two lawmakers whom White regards as “God’s gift” to the repeal fight (state representative Jason Nelson is the other) — led the fight in the senate. “You’re fighting internally those who, as conservatives, believe you always listen to the Chamber [of Commerce] on what’s good for business, and those, as conservatives, who believe you don’t always listen to the Chamber,” Brecheen says. “You take what the Chamber says, and you see that they have a very good viewpoint, being pro-business, but you’ve got to make sure that things are done according to the U.S. Constitution. It’s a matter of, Do your loyalties lie to a lobbying group, or do your loyalties lie to following the oath, which is to uphold the U.S. Constitution?”

The Education Committee still wouldn’t hear a Common Core repeal bill, but Brecheen and Senator Anthony Sykes stole a march on senate leaders. After another of Brecheen’s education bills had cleared the committee process, he gutted his own bill and replaced it with an amendment that would remove Oklahoma from the Common Core initiative.

When senate leaders blocked that amendment, Brecheen put the gun on the table. “I basically told leadership that I would do a press statement saying that they had refused to hear the bill,” he says. “And so, as a result of that day’s happenings, I got an agreement from leadership that they would . . . force the Education chairman to hear the bill” that Brecheen had co-authored with Jason Nelson, which was coming out of the house.

Nelson, a veteran of the state house, provided White with the legislative savvy that she had lacked in earlier attempts to repeal Common Core. With Shannon now running for U.S. Senate, an ally of Nelson’s, Jeff Hickman, was the new state-house speaker. Nelson deferred to Hickman, whose name went on the bill, while working with Brecheen and Sykes to add language repealing Common Core. The bill would allow schools to use the Core standards while the state wrote new ones, scheduled to take effect in the 2016–17 school year. That was an important provision for winning the debate, Nelson says.

“To me, the best defense is a good offense, and a lot of the bills that wanted to repeal Common Core were just a defensive bill — that’s all they did,” Nelson says.

This was the bill that Brecheen wanted the senate to hear. Throughout this period, “the grassroots effort came to full bloom,” according to Nelson. White’s team was running robocalls in several key state-senate districts while also pressuring the house lawmakers to put more teeth in the bill. The activists also organized another rally in the senate on St. Patrick’s Day in which activists went to their senators’ offices to talk about Common Core.

The state senate passed the bill in late March, but they amended it in a way that would give the governor’s political appointees broad authority to write the new standards. The Common Core opponents feared that the new state standards would thus be derived from the old standards; they didn’t want a merely symbolic win.

The senate amendments set up a showdown in the conference committee, which is where the activists won their final legislative victory. Senate president pro tem Brian Bingman — who now had his own primary challenge, motivated in part by his support for Common Core — appointed Brecheen and Sykes to the conference committee, which gave the activists a majority at that stage of the process.

The resulting legislation was thus an improvement, from the activists’ perspective, over the original house bill. Crucially, it gave the legislature final authority to ratify the Common Core replacement drafted in the executive branch. In the meantime, it repealed Common Core immediately by allowing schools to revert back to the old standards while waiting for the Common Core replacement.

On May 23, the bill passed the state house 71–18 and passed the state senate 32–9.

“One of the keys to the bill was that we did not just repeal it, but we put in place this really robust process to come up with new standards that I’m really pleased with,” Nelson says. “Because that’s really what we want, high standards, and we want to do it ourselves.”

While the bill sat on the governor’s desk for two weeks White and the other moms mobilized their network to inundate her with as many as 20,000 phone calls asking her to sign the bill.

“We cannot ignore the widespread concern of citizens, parents, educators, and legislators who have expressed fear that adopting Common Core gives up local control of Oklahoma’s public schools,” Fallin said when she finally signed the bill on June 5. “The words ‘Common Core’ in Oklahoma are now so divisive that they have become a distraction that interferes with our mission of providing the best education possible for our children. If we are going to improve our standards in the classroom, now is the time to get to work.”

The work of the activists isn’t over. “We know of all the work we still have to do to make sure the law is enforced,” Lynn Habluetzel said. She noted that some school districts have announced that they plan to continue using Common Core.

The moms don’t plan to use this political army they’ve built to power their own political careers. “I don’t really see any of us ever running for office,” Habluetzel said. “It’s too much fun on the other side, being the grassroots.”

— Joel Gehrke is a political reporter for National Review Online.

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