Idaho Common Core Opponents And Supporters Line Up For Battle

Jan 22, 2014

Stay-at-home mom Stephanie Zimmerman leads the opposition to Common Core in Idaho.
Credit Adam Cotterell / Boise State Public Radio

Idaho and 44 other states now use the Common Core State Standards. But public discomfort with this set of learning objectives has been growing, and lawmakers in several states have tried to get rid of them.

Indiana has gone farther than any state to reverse course on Common Core. Last spring, its Legislature paused implementation of the standards for a year while a committee studied them. Much of the credit for halting Common Core goes to two Indianapolis housewives. They founded a grassroots effort against the standards.

In Idaho, some lawmakers would also like to hit pause on Common Core or get rid of it altogether. And, in an echo from Indiana, there are two Boise housewives urging them to do it.

Stephanie Zimmerman leads the fight against Common Core in Idaho. Her chief lieutenant is Stacey Knudsen. Both are college graduates and middle-class stay-at-home moms. Knudsen has five children and Zimmerman has eight.

Zimmerman's oldest is in high school and her youngest is less than a year old. They don’t see her nearly as much since she started her Common Core opposition effort, but she’s doing it she says because most of her children still have a lot of classroom years ahead.    

“There is a movement across the nation led mainly by mothers, sprinkle in a few fathers for good measure, who have looked at [Common Core] and said this is not what’s best for our children,”  Zimmerman says.

Zimmerman and Knudsen have a long list of objections to the standards. For example, they see them as federal encroachment on state control of education and say the standards haven’t been proven academically. Supporters counter that the standards were spearheaded by a group of states without federal intervention and written by top education scholars.

Zimmerman started her fight in late 2012, writing to lawmakers and education and political groups around the state. At the time, Idaho was embroiled in the fight over the Students Come First education laws which voters repealed that November. Zimmerman thinks that’s why no one would listen to her, at first.

“And then all of a sudden the elections were over and people started responding to my e-mails, ‘yeah, I’ve been looking at this,’” she says.  

By summer 2013, Zimmerman’s voice had gone from a whisper to a roar. Her sympathizers dominated public meetings of the governor’s Education Improvement Task Force and Zimmerman, Knudsen and their group Idahoans For Local Education had brought prominent national foes of Common Core to speak in Boise. These housewives had put some of Idaho’s most powerful individuals and groups on the defensive.

“This isn’t something we can take lightly,” says Rod Gramer, head of Idaho Business for Education, a group of CEOs who lobby for education issues. “It’s really important for the legislators to know that we believe this is a small minority, vocal but small minority, that oppose the standards.”

Last summer, Gramer launched another group, Idahoans for Excellence in Education, to champion Common Core. Its membership roll shows a curious mix of people and groups that sometimes don’t see eye-to-eye. It includes all the state’s major education groups, some of whom often don’t get along like the teachers' union and superintendents association.

It also boasts Gramer’s business group, another influential business lobby and all the state’s university presidents, to name just a few. If Idaho’s Common Core fight was a football game it might look like an NFL team staring across the scrimmage line at a high school second string. But the rookies have these pros sweating. Gramer says they’re worried lawmakers might get rid of Common Core this year or halt implementation like Indiana did.

“The threat of the repeal or the delay is real. It’s happening in other states around the United States,” Gramer says.

But Tom Luna says Idaho is not Indiana. Luna is Idaho’s schools’ superintendent and has been involved with Common Core since its inception.

“In Indiana, it does not have to go to the Legislature for those standards to be implemented in the state,” Luna says. “So Indiana’s Legislature never had an opportunity to review them and weigh in on them before they were adopted.”

Indiana’s Department of Education has authority to adopt standards, and signed on to Common Core in 2010 without approval from the Legislature. But lawmakers there have now reviewed the standards. A special committee took the summer to do it. However, it could not agree on whether they are are good or bad. A bill is now being considered there to delay implementation another year.

Idaho law did require the state’s legislative education committees to approve Common Core, which they did in 2011. But some of the lawmakers who sat on those committees have become critics, like Sen. Steven Thayn, R-Emmett, and Sen. Russ Fulcher, R-Meridian.

Now Luna’s Department of Education and Gramer’s coalition have partnered on a public relations campaign to boost Common Core’s image. It includes social media and online ads like this one.

This effort to meet Common Core opponents head-on is a big change. A few months ago, supporters dismissed opponents as "crazy conspiracy theorists."

Some of the objections to Common Core are conspiracy theories. One person at a public meeting last year of the state’s Education Improvement Task Force testified that the standards are a United Nations plot to destroy capitalism. Stephanie Zimmerman wonders if some of her more eccentric supporters will hurt her cause.

“You’re always going to have crazy people,” Zimmerman says. “You know, to a certain extent no matter what you’re involved in, whether you’re on the left side of the spectrum or the right side of the spectrum there are people out there that are, you know, sort of on the fringes.”

But Stacey Knudsen says most of the anti-Common Core movement is not on the fringe.

“Don’t pass us off as right wing crazy people, because that’s not who we are,” Knudsen says. "We are moms who love our kids, who love education.”

However, Zimmerman and Knutson admit they think there might be some truth -- even in some of the things that seem crazy -- like UN involvement.

While this fight goes on, Idaho teachers are using Common Core standards to guide their lessons. So far, no Idaho lawmakers have tried to eliminate the standards or pause implementing them. But Rod Gramer says this year could just be a warm up to a Common Core struggle that may last for years in Idaho.

“We want to make sure we’re in this for the long haul and not just the 2014 session,” Gramer says.

Here’s why the fight could last for a while: Common Core supporters need multiple years of test results to show that the standards raise student achievement. Idaho schools will pilot a Common Core test this spring, with the first test that counts for schools happening in 2015. So it could be 2016, 2017 or later before supporters can offer any evidence that the Common Core standards have helped Idaho students.

But that test has critics of its own. Even some educators who support the standards dislike the test because of its length. It could take eight hours to administer. And Idaho’s Department of Education warns there will likely be a backlash from parents after students take it for the first time because it’s harder than Idaho’s pre-Common Core assessments and students will appear to do worse.

Lawmaker Steven Thayn says he probably won’t try to get rid of Common Core this year but he’s likely to introduce a bill to get Idaho out of the test.

If the teams do line up again over the Common Core football game next year, things might not look so uneven. Common Core opposition started as a grassroots movement, but now big far-right organizations and donors are starting to play. This time next year, we could be watching a different game.

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