In defense of the anti–Common Core Right

It’s true that many conservatives (and liberals, too!) have employed pretty outlandish rhetoric in their effort to discredit the Common Core. It’s also true that many of the things these opponents say are either factually untrue or unrelated to the standards themselves. But the Southern Poverty Law Center’s recent attempt to push back against some of this rhetoric is done in an unnecessarily divisive way.

I sympathize with some Common Core opponents, especially parents who feel that the Common Core standards are the reason their children are not getting the education they deserve. Moreover, there are certainly principled skeptics at places like Cato or AEI on the Right or education-establishment groups on the Left who justifiably worry about a sometimes-flawed process or fret that all this work on standards isn’t necessarily going to make a whole heck of a lot of difference when it comes to student achievement. My view has always been that if you are going to spend a ton of public money on education, there should be some expectation that students will actually learn something. And if you’re going to have such expectations, they should be meaningfully high and aligned with the expectations of employers and colleges.

Distinct from this reasonable opposition, though, are people and groups who cynically stir up opposition to further unrelated political goals. These groups are intentionally misdirecting righteous anger about textbooks, pedagogy, and the general state of our education system.

Yet another small but extremely vocal group of Common Core opponents has truly gone beyond the pale in letting their intolerant feelings or conspiracy theories spill over into a roiling issue like Common Core. I’ve heard or read all sorts of nonsense—that the Common Core is supposedly the work of the Muslim Brotherhood, the United Nations, part of the “gay agenda” (whatever that means), and so forth. I’ve encountered these people rarely, but they are out there. This new report from the Southern Poverty Law Center, however, lumps all Right-leaning opposition together into one category of those they label “radical” and of those who they assume are out to “destroy public schools, not reform them.” They go even further by declaring, “This isn’t innocuous rhetoric. It’s a stab that points disproportionately at children of color and the poor.”

It’s impossible to argue that this type of thing exists after seeing some of the hate-filled examples that SPLC cites. In fact, our own Checker Finn was quoted in the report calling many of the claims about the Common Core “total paranoia.”  “Total paranoia” these examples certainly are, and SPLC is correct (whether on Common Core or any other issue) to call out those who deal in conspiracy theories or those who taint legitimate views on public policy with hate for certain groups. Moreover, I appreciate the SPLC’s efforts to push back against inaccurate information regarding the Common Core (something we’ve been doing tirelessly at Fordham). Unfortunately, the group shoots itself in the foot by committing the same error as some of the aforementioned opponents have—that is, using the Common Core as a means to fight education reformers writ large.

SPLC draws very little distinction between legitimate opposition that they (or I) disagree with and rhetoric that should be a call to arms for those who support their stated mission of “fighting hate and bigotry and to seeking justice for the most vulnerable members of our society.” Intolerance of others’ views should not be tolerated in a civil debate about public policy. But their assertion, for example, that “the Christian Right’s disdain for public education has been growing since the movement began its rise as a political power beginning in the 1970s,” is a sweeping generalization and a gigantic overstep.

While they seem unwilling to separate conservative activists who are reasonable from those who say intolerant things, they seem quite capable of doing so with liberals. In one section, they quite clearly paint opposition from the likes of Diane Ravitch, “educators,” and “progressives” in a “good-guys” corner and “activists on the radical right [who] hope to gain leverage against their real target—public education itself” in a “bad-guys” corner. The former present what they label “valid Common Core concerns,” and the report goes on to list six arguments made almost entirely by liberals.

We can all, of course, support the Southern Poverty Law Center’s stated mission of fighting hate. However, not all Common Core opponents are hateful, and that makes their report unnecessarily divisive and partisan in a way that fails to allow for legitimate opposition from both sides of the political spectrum.

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