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Common Core school standards are being implemented statewide

Schools around the state are implementing the Common Core standards.

Scott Walker's repudiation of Common Core educational standards on Tuesday -- standards he had previously given tepid support -- left some people scratching their heads.

"Fellow Republicans state Sen. Luther Olsen of Ripon and state Rep. Steve Kestell of Elkhart Lake, the chairmen of the Senate and Assembly education committees, said they were puzzled by Walker’s pronouncement," writes Matthew DeFour in this Wisconsin State Journal story.

“(Schools) already bought curriculum, principals are telling teachers to step it up and all of the sudden the governor is sending mixed signals,” Olsen said. “What does that mean?”

But with Walker looking at a presidential run, and some of his biggest donors opposed to the standards, the question becomes not "Why?" but "Why not?"

Walker and Florida Gov. Rick Scott changed course this week, just as the attack on "Obamacore" became a nationwide phenomenon that seemingly came out of nowhere to blindside proponents.

For supporters, implementation of the standards seemed like a done deal. The standards were developed by an army of experts, funded by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, led by the National Governors Association, and have been adopted by 45 states and the District of Columbia. Minnesota has adopted the math, but not the English standards.

"It’s hard to argue that Common Core proponents haven’t been caught flat-footed,” Andrew Rotherham of Bellwether Education, a consulting firm that has worked for groups backing the standards, told Politico a few days ago.

Opponents have equated the standards with a nationalization of the educational system, blasted them as substandard, and turned them into a partisan issue.

Partisan opponents have dubbed the standards Obamacore, and race, too, has entered into the debate.

Take this Fox News report of an irate mother who discovered that her 9-year-old boy had been assigned reading material that contained the words "pimp" and "mobstaz."

“I couldn’t believe it at first – hearing him read it to me,” the mother told Fox News. “So I looked at the paper and read the entire article. It was filled with Ebonics.”

According to the story, "school officials said the worksheet was age appropriate based on an education website affiliated with Common Core education standards."

Fierce opposition to the standards looks like a grassroots movement, but a deeper look is revealing. In the Politico story, Stephanie Simon and Nirvi Shah write that Common Core opponents, "project an image of scrappy grassroots gumption: One rancher in Alabama said he would sell off a cow to cover the costs of an anti-Common Core town hall. But they’re backed by an array of organizations with multimillion dollar budgets of their own and much experience in mobilizing crowds and lobbying lawmakers, including The Heritage Foundation, Americans for Prosperity, the Pioneer Institute, Concerned Women for America and FreedomWorks."

The battle against Common Core is being funded by "some of the wealthiest and most politically savvy conservative donors in the U.S., including the Pope, DeVos and Scaife families, according to tax records and annual reports," they write. "A spokeswoman for the Charles Koch Foundation said it hasn’t made any grants specifically aimed at the Common Core, but tax documents show the Koch brothers have supported many of the advocacy groups working against the standards."

Dick and Betsy DeVos, you might remember, are the school privatization activists who donated $250,000 to Walker during his recall campaign. And the American Federation for Children, founded by Betsy DeVos, spent $1.1 million.

And the Koch brothers? Keeping their fingerprints off political contributions is standard operating procedure.

This is from a Forbes story from last year that addresses the claim by the Kochs — founders of Americans for Prosperity — that they didn't spend a single dollar on Walker's recall campaign:  

"AFP spent $3 million on ads ahead of the recall as well as providing 75 staffers for door-knocking purposes, encouraging voters to choose Walker. The Wisconsin chapter of AFP also launched a four-day, 10-city bus tour directly preceding Tuesday’s vote and set up a web petition to Stand With Scott Walker."

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The backlash against Common Core has moved quickly. The day before Walker made his pronouncement that Common Core standards aren't rigorous enough, Florida Gov. Scott announced that he was backing out  of a consortium developing the new standards.

Both Scott and Walker had previously been on board with the new standards. In January of 2012, the state's Read to Lead task force, of which Walker is the chairman, had this to say about Wisconsin's adoption of Common Core in its report:

"In response to the need to improve state standards and create a common set of expectations for children across the country, Wisconsin was among the first of 48 states and territories to adopt the Common Core State Standards, a set of rigorous new standards that are benchmarked against the standards of high performing countries."

While Wisconsin was among the first to adopt the standards, Republican lawmakers, with the support of one Democrat, inserted a provision into the state budget that requires public and legislative hearings on Common Core. The provision was authored by Rep. Dean Knudson, R-Hudson and Sen. Mary Lazich, R-New Berlin. Here's an excerpt from a Wisconsin Reporter story back in May on the motion:

"It leaves in place the math and English standards the state Department of Public Instruction already has implemented, and it prevents Common Core social studies and science standards, which currently don’t exist, from being implemented."

The science standards are designed to complement the Common Core standards. Dubbed Next Generation Science Standards, they have been hammered out over the last two years by educators from 26 states. But so far they've only been adopted by seven.

Like Wisconsin, Republicans in Michigan have introduced legislation blocking the Next Generation standards. But debate over those standards is likely to be focused on two red-meat Republican topics: evolution and climate change.

In Kentucy, where the debate over science standards have been particularly fierce, Martin Cothran of the conservative Family Foundation claimed the standards exhibit “an over emphasis on climate control” while “half of science is left out the science standards,” according to this story in the Richmond Register. 

It's one of those areas where Republican religious and economic values intersect. And it may go a long way in explaining why the likes of the Koch brothers — whose companies, according to the EPA, emitted over 24 million tons of carbon dioxide in 2011, and who have spent countless dollars countering climate change theory — might be interested in nipping school standards in the bud.

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Steven Elbow joined The Capital Times in 1999 and has covered law enforcement in addition to city, county and state government. He has also worked for the Portage Daily Register and has written for the Isthmus weekly newspaper in Madison.