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, We’re smart, we’ve got money, we know better, these people won’t even get it, they’ll just be so happy that we said, ‘Look, your kids can be smarter,’ and they’ll 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.”